• Average age of New Zealand in the match against Mexico was 25 years old
  • Young players come of age in strong performance against El Tri
  • Despite elimination, Kiwis believe they can shock Portugal

By Brendon Hanley with New Zealand

New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson has stressed repeatedly that it’s a work in progress trying to get his youngsters used to top-level international competition, especially since most of them play in New Zealand, Australia or in smaller leagues around the world. But the outsiders have relished their underdog status and came of age in a narrow 2-1 loss to Mexico on Wednesday night. They remain stubbornly confident that they can go toe-to-toe with the Portuguese on Saturday evening in Saint Petersburg.

Inspirational leaders
Hudson has used the outsider status of his team to inspire their dogged performances in a tough Group A. “We’ve constantly had people writing our team off,” he said. “But our response is always the same: we have nothing but belief and nothing but spirit in this team. I think you’ll see that we are improving every tour, every game, and this tournament has been really important in that process.”

Hudson’s faith in this side, which as he says has really only come together for under a year, has clearly struck a chord with his young charges, as has the ambition emanating from the manager, who is after all only 36 years old himself. “That [Hudson] had the bravery to set the team up to go after a Mexico team like that is definitely in his credit,” said Michael McGlinchey, who is a relative old hand at 30.

Another one of the veterans, Tommy Smith, who played every minute at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ as a 20-year-old, said he relishes the role of leadership with the All Whites. “I look back at the World Cup and wish I had taken it all in more, but it all went by so fast. I tell all the younger players to enjoy it because you never know when you’ll get a chance to be back at a big tournament like this.”

Rising stars?
For many it’s the first time they’ve been exposed to promising Kiwi players like goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic, winger Ryan Thomas and even captain and goal-scoring hero against Mexico, Chris Wood. “Our younger players don’t get enough recognition, even back home in New Zealand,” said Hudson.

“We’ve got some really top young players in New Zealand. And this team has so much more improvement in them. With more games and tournaments like this. People see the promise in the team when we come to events like this.”

The encouraging signs are even more extraordinary given the size of New Zealand, but Hudson has blended 14 players 25 or younger into his group, who he says will show no awe against the European champions. “If you compare our player pool with every other team in this tournament, it’s ludicrous,” he said. “But there is no shred of doubt in our squad, even if we understand there is a huge gulf in class.”