Chris Wood strikes an imposing figure on the football pitch, occupying defenders with his towering frame and deceptive pace, and it is hard to believe the New Zealand forward is only 21. Despite his substantial height, the Leicester City man is soft spoken, though he could hardly hide his excitement when FIFA.com caught up with him. That was because the young striker was already eagerly looking forward to the daunting double-header against Mexico in the upcoming FIFA World Cup™ qualifying intercontinental play-offs.
“I remember the last one back in 2009 against Bahrain, it was an unbelievable experience,” said Wood, who was just 17 when he appeared in both legs of the 2010 play-offs. “To have that again will be great.”
Wood admits he was keeping up to date with the manic conclusion to the CONCACAF qualifying group, with their potential opponents in the inter-continental play-offs changing several times during the course of the evening.
“I was keeping across it but we can never have an effect on who we play in the next round so we didn’t really mind that much,” Wood said. “We were hoping for Mexico to lose and for Costa Rica to win their game, but Panama just couldn’t hold out for those last couple of minutes. At the end of the day it’s what the draw has given us so it’s going to be a tough match, but I don't see why we can’t win it.”
Mexico’s involvement in the CONCACAF hexagonal qualification round means they are well prepared, with a healthy dose of competitive football running right up to October. New Zealand’s last competitive fixture was back in March. “We’ll definitely be prepared, we’ll do our homework on Mexico,” explained Wood. “They’re a very good side so we’ll have to work very hard in training. We’ll be ready to go at the Azteca.”
The Estadio Azteca has been the scene of some of the most thrilling games in World Cup history with two Finals, Diego Maradona’s performance against England in 1986 and Italy’s epic 4-3 defeat of West Germany after extra time in 1970. Wood hopes the All Whites can write some history of their own.
“It’s going to be a great experience,” said the Leicester City striker. “We played Mexico a few years back, with over 90,000 supporters at the Rose Bowl in the USA. That was amazing and with more than 100,000 at this game it’ll be a great occasion and hopefully one that we can get a positive result from.”
Any kind of result will be tough work for New Zealand, with over 50 places separating the sides in October’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and Mexico having qualified for every World Cup finals since 1990.
We’re going to have to give them respect but we’re also going to have to take the game to them, especially at their ground.
“They’re an unbelievable side and they have some great quality, some great players,” said Wood. “We’re going to have to give them respect but we’re also going to have to take the game to them, especially at their ground. We’re going to have to play our way and put our stamp on the game. We’re looking to get a good result there, maybe a draw – perhaps even sneak a win.”
A victory for New Zealand in the Azteca would give them a huge confidence boost going into the second leg in Wellington, and Wood believes the squad has the quality to come out on top. “We’ve got a great squad all through,” Wood said. “Tommy Smith is a good leader at the back – he commands the back line very well. Marco Rojas, who’s at Stuttgart now, is an unbelievable player who will hopefully come good for us in the play-offs.”
Wood has certainly come on himself in qualifying so far for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, with seven goals in just nine matches. He grabbed nine in 12 throughout 2012 for the national side. “I just think it was a bit of confidence,” Wood explained. “Once you’re confident you keep it ticking over and the goals come. I had been a bit out of form for my country but I’m glad I’ve kicked on in the last year or two.”
The tall forward puts part of the reason behind his good international form down to Ricki Herbert. New Zealand’s coach was the second-youngest player in the All Whites squad at the 1982 World Cup Spain, and Wood believes that experience has been key to his own development. Leicester City’s No39 was, after all, the youngest player in New Zealand's 2010 World Cup pool.
“He’s been there and done that before, with the experience that he had, it was great for us going into the 2010 World Cup campaign,” Wood said of his coach. “He’s done the job for us and he’s done really well for us as a nation. All credit to him he’s got us in a position to qualify again and that’s where we wanted to be.
"Not many teams can say they went to a World Cup and finished unbeaten. We had a chance to go through in the last game but it just wasn’t meant to be. You can’t take it away from us. We finished above Italy which was a huge surprise to everybody I’d say.”
The Final Draw for the 2014 finals takes place on Friday 6 December, a day before Wood’s 22nd birthday. What would be the perfect present for the forward if they were to overcome El Tri? “For me, I’d love to play England. It’s my mother’s country of birth and I play my football here, so I’d love to play them and test myself.”
Wood’s side must first pass the Azteca acid test to stand any chance of a samba showdown with Roy Hodgson’s side. A nation, though, stands behind the young forward, who hopes to make those Brazilian dreams come true for his country.