New Zealand have made significant strides over just a few short years. Most significantly the senior men and women’s teams have been hugely competitive at their most recent FIFA World Cups™. However, it is the nation’s U-17 national team that have paved the way by achieving breakthrough success on the world stage.
The Young All Whites reached the knockout stage of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, an accomplishment no other New Zealand team had achieved to that point. It is a feat the team repeated two years ago in Mexico.
Now the Class of 2013 are aiming to continue that progress at the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 this October. Leading the side is a man that played a key role in those two previous campaigns. Darren Bazeley assumed the team’s reins in June of last year, having been assistant coach for the Young All Whites in both Nigeria and Mexico.
Building for success
The New Zealand national association have put in place building blocks for success, and at the same time raised their expectations. The pathway to UAE 2013 has been a lengthy one for Bazeley and his young charges. Trials took place in regional centres during early 2012, while later in the year a national U-17 team participated in the national youth league competition.
Many regional players made the move to Auckland to link up with the squad allowing the squad to train together regularly, and assisting with what Bazeley describes as “getting good international habits into them at a younger age.”
Bazeley received interest from as far afield as Sweden, England, USA and Australia throughout the 12 months leading up to the Oceania qualifiers. And the former long-serving Watford full-back was happy to welcome overseas players into the extended training squad at any stage, provided they could get to New Zealand.
With a solid preparation New Zealand found themselves relatively comfortable victors in April’s Oceania qualifiers, despite spirited challenges from New Caledonia and Fiji. "[The national youth league] was the ideal preparation for the OFC U-17 Championship,” said Bazeley. “It’s given us the opportunity to try different players and formations in competitive matches against older players."
New Zealand have a long association with the FIFA U-17 World Cup having hosted the event in 1999; the first Oceania-based FIFA tournament aside from those hosted by former OFC member Australia. UAE 2013 will also be the nation’s fourth successive participation at this level.
New Zealand’s football hierarchy, however, expect their youngest international side to do more than simply make up the numbers in the Emirates. “The coaches [U-17 and U-20] are aware that the standards set in the previous campaign must be maintained or bettered,” Grant McKavanagh, New Zealand Football’s Chief Executive said prior to his departure from the role last week.
For now though New Zealand will have to wait until late August to find out which nations stand in their way of a third successive qualification to the knockout stage.
While results at UAE 2013 are one thing, recent evidence is that the U-17 team as a development vehicle is paying significant dividends. During New Zealand’s final 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers in March, 14 squad member had previously featured at either an U-17 or U-20 FIFA World Cup since 2007, compared to only three in Ricki Herbert’s squad at the same stage last year.
"I think sometimes we underestimate the quality of players we are developing in New Zealand,” says Bazeley. “Players who have come from overseas are surprised with the standard and it's higher than what they were expecting.”