History-making Kiwis aim for greater heights

  • New Zealand have reached their first quarter-final in any men’s football tournament

  • Bell: “We’ve made history in more ways than one”

  • Change in mentality in the OlyWhites’ ranks

As referee Kevin Ortega signalled the end of stoppage time in the match between New Zealand and Romania to confirm that a New Zealand men’s football team had reached the quarter-finals of a major tournament for the very first time, a collective cheer ricocheted around the empty stands of the Sapporo Dome.

The yell that went up from all of the Kiwi players and staff perfectly encapsulated the mix of relief, incredulity and unbridled joy they felt. “We’ve been speaking about the chance to make history since the start of the tournament and absolutely did so again before today’s game,” said Joe Bell in an interview with FIFA.com.

“We had a few goals set up for ourselves: our men’s team had never won a game at the Olympics, so that was our first goal to achieve, and the second was to make it through the group and into the quarter-finals. Now we’ve achieved both and want to go further."

SAPPORO, JAPAN - JULY 28: Michael Woud #1 of Team New Zealand interacts with Danny Hay, Head Coach of Team New Zealand as they celebrate after the Men's First Round Group B match between Romania and New Zealand on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Sapporo Dome on July 28, 2021 in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)

It quickly became clear that Korea Republic would emerge victorious from the parallel match in Group B and that a draw would be enough for Bell’s team to qualify for the knockout stages. Despite this, he and his black-clad team-mates, set up in a 4-3-3 formation, took charge of their game and were the superior side throughout.

“We were pushing for the three points from the start, particularly after coming from the Honduras loss [the match ended 3-2],” said the midfielder, who impressed in the centre of the pitch with his robust tackling and clever passes. “Obviously we lost Winston Reid in the last game [the OlyWhites’ captain was forced off with an injury early on] so we had to change things up, which meant we had a back four. It was a little bit more attacking and you could definitely see that in the first half. I do think we deserved to go through.”

SAPPORO, JAPAN - JULY 28: Eduard Florescu #13 of Team Romania battles for possession with Joe Champness #11 and Joe Bell #8 of Team New Zealand during the Men's First Round Group B match between Romania and New Zealand on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Sapporo Dome on July 28, 2021 in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, the Kiwis must have felt a few jitters against Romania, as the Eastern European side only needed a goal to secure their own passage to the next round and had several good opportunities to score.

“We can be a little bit more clinical in attack; we could have closed the game out in the first half with one or two goals,” Bell added. “Defensively I thought we were solid. The last 20 minutes started getting a little bit frantic, which isn’t how we wanted it.” Anyone hearing the words ‘New Zealand’ and ‘football’ in the same sentence automatically thinks ‘underdog’ – even fans in their own country. Yet this image did not fit with the OlyWhites’ spirited display in Sapporo. For Bell, who has been playing for Viking FK in the Norwegian topflight since 2020, this cliché needs an urgent rethink:

“The whole purpose of our goal here is to show that New Zealand football can compete at the international level at these tournaments; it’s about changing the mindset back home about how we can do here.” Of course, coach Danny Hay has also been instrumental in steering the team to this point, particularly when it comes to the players’ mental attitude. “He has been giving us that confidence from the start, and keeps making it clear to us how well we can play the game,” said the 22-year-old, whose team is one of the youngest at the tournament. “It was only a matter of time until the players believed that they can compete at this level and play good football.”

The change in mindset is already taking effect if Bell is anything to go by. “The goal is for us to go as far as we can – we want to win gold!” he laughed, before cracking a smile so broad it could be seen through the mask that must be worn in the post-match media Mixed Zone at all times during this tournament.

A few moments later, as the raucous celebrations of his team-mates echoed through the catacombs of the stadium, he conceded to a Japanese journalist that “silver or bronze would be alright too”. If his team can keep delivering such carefree performances, why rule anything out?