- *New Zealand boast a solid record at U-17 level *
- The Kiwis have been drawn alongside Turkey, Paraguay and Mali
- *Coach Danny Hay says the tournament is “something to be cherished” *
A small population and limited international exposure mean New Zealand invariably head to the world stage as underdogs. The same will be true at the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup in India.
New Zealand’s opponents, however, underestimate the Oceania champions at their peril. History shows the U-17 tournament is New Zealand’s best performing competition.
The Young All Whites’ Class of 2009 created a landmark achievement in the nation’s football annals by becoming the first New Zealand side to progress to the knockout phase of a FIFA tournament. They reprised the feat two years later in Mexico, and again at the most recent tournament in Chile.
*Overcoming hurdles *Geography and limited resources meant New Zealand were unable to play a single international match - aside from their qualifying campaign - prior to arriving in India. Coming out of a long winter, New Zealand instead set their focus on acclimatising early, and were the first nation to arrive in India.
Despite the modest preparation, New Zealand coach Danny Hay remains confident in his young charges.
“You could almost say we are on the moon in terms of being removed from the football hotbeds of the world,” Hay told FIFA.com. “Some of the other nations in India might have played up to 40 or 50 matches. It is just a challenge we deal with, but it is not an excuse. We are looking forward to putting on some good performances.
“The reality is we are not a massive footballing nation in terms of having unlimited budgets so we have had to be a little bit clever about when we get the team together and where. We would have loved to have taken the players offshore and playing against top-quality international opposition, but that is just not possible.”
Learning from success
While New Zealand’s squad will be experiencing a world tournament for the first time, Hay knows a thing or two about achieving success at a high level. A towering centre-back, Hay not only captained his country but is one of the few New Zealanders to play in the English Premier League thanks to a spell at a star-studded Leeds United around the turn of the century.
Also making for impressive reading is Hay’s international coaching debut. Brought in just a few months prior to the 2015 U-17 World Cup, Hay led the Kiwis to a first ever win over a South American opponent in a FIFA men’s tournament, 2-1 over Paraguay. It took a somewhat last-gasp extra-time goal from Brazil to eliminate New Zealand in the Round of 16.
“That was a good experience and a good learning curve for me,” said Hay. “I've had the full two years with this group of players and their understanding of the style of play will be a step ahead of where the last cohort were at.
“I’m really pleased that we have a good bunch of quality young men in the squad and I’m really excited about the tournament.”
New Zealand certainly weren’t handed any favours in the draw having been pooled with African kings Mali, Paraguay – who impressed during their South American campaign – and European qualifiers Turkey.
“Sometimes at junior international level, the gap isn’t as big as it can be at senior level,” Hay said. “But we are under no illusions about the challenge at hand.”
Hay believes the tournament is an important milestone for young players, and is keen to ensure his players treasure the experience.
“When I look back to when I was 17, I was simply playing schoolboy football, and that was probably as good as it got for several years,” said Hay. “As an ex-international, it's about reminding these players about the opportunity they've got, and that it's something that needs to be cherished and grabbed with both hands.”