McGarry: New Zealand never stopped believing

“I’m lucky and I feel very happy,” said New Zealand’s James McGarry, minutes after the Young All Whites had sealed their place in the last 16 of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015 - a tournament that has thus far seen his fortunes fluctuate wildly.

In his side’s opening match against France, the full-back put through his own goal to trigger a five-goal first-half salvo for Les Bleuets. The 17-year-old partly atoned in the second, finding the net at the right end of the pitch, though it did not prevent the Oceania representatives from suffering a 6-1 defeat.

Yet as he explained to FIFA.com, that consolation goal provided him with a timely confidence boost: “It was a tough little time for me. Nobody wants to score an own goal but I managed to regain my focus thanks to the coach and my team-mates. I didn’t lose faith and that helped me score in the second half. That goal gave me a shot in the arm for the other matches.”

A historic strike That goal just happened to be New Zealand’s first in six U-17 World Cup matches, an unwanted run stretching back to their second outing at Mexico 2011. And as McGarry added, it was a strike that served to change their fortunes. “We absolutely wanted to turn things around," he said. "In the second half against France we just wanted to give ourselves a lift.”

Having ended their long goalless sequence, the New Zealanders then registered their first point in a 0-0 draw with Syria, the prelude to the hugely encouraging 2-1 defeat of Paraguay, a game in which they showed their tactical astuteness and determination, which was rewarded with a last-gasp winner. “We didn’t come here to go out in the first round,” said McGarry. “We never stopped believing we could win and things worked out for us. I think we thoroughly deserved it.”

Though stationed at left-back, McGarry sports the No11 jersey. Asked if he found that a little strange, he replied: “Yes, of course. I started out in attack but the coach put me at the back for tactical reasons, though it hasn’t stopped me from going forward and getting into the opposition penalty box when the chance arises (laughs). That’s how I got the goal against France.

“Today, the coach pushed me into attack in the first 20 minutes so we could keep the pressure on them. I like being able to switch positions and it worked out in the end.”

Given his versatility, the Kiwi found it hard to name just the one role model: “That’d mean I’d have to choose between a striker, a winger and a left-back. I prefer just to watch Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Marcelo.”

On a high Though the young New Zealanders team do not perform the Haka* *before their games, they take as much pleasure in winning as their feted rugby-playing compatriots. Coach Danny Hay has even compared his side to a rugby team, one that knows its way around a football pitch.

Like the All Blacks, the Young All Whites have plenty of team spirit, as they showed in their dressing-room celebrations, pumping the music up high and sharing plenty of hugs and backslaps. Having lost a bet with his colleagues, one member of the Kiwi backroom staff even took a seat on the floor and let them shave off his long, flowing locks. “It’s just our way of celebrating,” explained McGarry. “As for the bet, the victim was only too happy to lose!”

Turning his thoughts to this week’s Round-of-16 meeting with Brazil, the defender said: “It’s such an important match. We’re going to give all we’ve got to keep our dream alive and put in a great performance.”

McGarry’s parents have made the trip to Chile to support him and he showed his gratitude by making a beeline for them as soon as the final whistle sounded on Sunday: “They’ve come a long way. I haven’t seen them for a while and I’m delighted that they’ve come all this way to cheer me on.”

Jubilant at extending their stay in Chile, McGarry and his team-mates will be hoping his parents have cause to stay on themselves for a couple of weeks yet.