Big picture inspires departing Kiwis

New Zealand were trailing to Gelson Martins’ pinpoint angled shot and on the point of elimination from the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 when their captain Bill Tuiloma was substituted in injury time.

Though downcast at the Junior All Whites’ imminent exit at the hands of Portugal, the fans at Hamilton’s Waikato Stadium roused themselves to give the defender a raucous ovation as he left the field of play. It was a moment that summed up just how much Tuiloma and his team-mates had got the home supporters to rally round them since the start of the tournament.

Asked by if he thought the ovation was for the whole team, the skipper said: “I’m sure it was. I’m very proud of the side and to have led them during the tournament. I want to thank the people who came to see us and our families and friends, because none of this would have happened without them.”

The first Kiwi ever to play in France’s Ligue 1, the Olympique Marseille man wore the same look of pride and pain as the rest of his team-mates as they filed into the mixed zone. “It’s been a wonderful experience for me and the players, but it’s also a horrible feeling,” added Tuiloma. “It slipped out of our hands, and it hurts to have come within three minutes of taking the game into extra time.

“Our performance will be remembered in New Zealand for some time, though. Portugal are a very good side, and we came very close. At the end, they were reduced to wasting time and waiting for the final whistle.”

Coach Darren Bazeley can be proud of his side, who made history by reaching the knockout phase of a FIFA U-20 World Cup for the first time in New Zealand’s history, and who gave as good as they got against the highly rated Portuguese before succumbing to Martin’s 87th-minute winner.

This performance won’t be forgotten in New Zealand for quite some time. We gave people something to shout about.

“This is very important for us as New Zealand players and we’re going to take something positive from this,” said left-back Deklan Wynne, striking a defiant note.

Looking to the future, he added: “The people who came to the stadium to see us or watched us on TV have seen how we held our own against Portugal, which is really good for New Zealand football. I’m convinced that more of these players are going to turn professional and that a lot of us will be fighting for places in the U-23 team what will be playing in the Olympic qualifying competition.”

That competition will take place in Fiji on 7-13 December, with the winners going on to represent Oceania at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016. Describing New Zealand 2015 as “the time of my life”, Tuiloma identified three main reasons for the Junior All Whites’ success: “The team was willing, full of energy and enthusiastic. We were a real unit.”

Midfielder Clayton Lewis, who missed the Portugal game due to suspension, listed another virtue: “Morale in the camp was a bit low when we lost to USA (4-0 in their second group match) but we fought really hard to pick ourselves up.”

Having his say, coach Bazeley spoke of highs and lows during the tournament before praising his team for their togetherness and the pride they took in their football. Assessing the impact of their run on the national football scene, he added: “This performance won’t be forgotten in New Zealand for quite some time. I think we gave the people who came to watch us something to shout about.”

Aside from the emotions his side generated, Bazeley also pointed to role the tournament has played in taking Kiwi youth football to the next level: “We’ve shown here that we’ve started to acquire some strength in depth in terms of positions and players.

“We were one of the youngest sides, and definitely the youngest starting XI, and most of the players who played did well. They pulled the shirt on and did it justice. With a bit more self-belief and a bit more creativity and quality in the final third, we can start to win matches like the one against Portugal.”

Born near Auckland but of Samoan descent, Tuiloma believes the success New Zealand have had in the last few days can help change mindsets at a local level: “People think that the only sport played on the islands is rugby, and that’s not true. You don’t have to choose rugby. You can choose any sport. And anything is possible if you train hard.”