When the draw for the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 was announced, even New Zealand’s most optimistic supporters would not have expected their national side to make much of a mark in Group B. Placed alongside Mexico 2011 runners-up Uruguay, European powers Italy, and African champions Côte d’Ivoire, no one was giving them much of a chance.

And as predicted, New Zealand found it a struggle to match their rivals, losing three matches on the trot and failing to find the net once, even as they leaked 11 goals at the other end of the pitch. The nightmare run brought the team the unwelcome tournament record of an unmatched 543 minutes of U-17 World Cup football without a goal.

But New Zealand’s efforts at UAE 2013 were not all in vain. Despite the obvious disappointments, the team can go home in the knowledge they have made some gains, albeit as modest as the scattered white clouds that drifted over the Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium during their 3-0 defeat to the Ivorians.

We’ve been together for 18 months and I can honestly say we’re more friends than team-mates. 

New Zealand striker Holthusen

Team coach Darren Bazeley talked about the positives his charges can take away from the tournament: “It was a huge learning curve for us. It showed our players what they have to do if they are to match the teams we come up against from all over the world.”

“The defeat to Uruguay was hard to take,” the English coach added. “And it served as a warning to us. That’s why we put on a better performance against Italy where we created a number of chances. We wasted a chance from the penalty spot, and the Italian goalkeeper was excellent and denied us several goals.”

But despite improving, New Zealand still failed to collect a point, and Bazeley is understandably unhappy: “It’s disappointing to return home without a point. The players worked really hard, but we always knew it would be difficult. It was a tough group with three strong teams.”

“Without doubt it’s disappointing,” Bazeley continued. “But I’d be more concerned if we hadn’t created chances. It is certainly not easy to score at a World Cup and we must work hard to improve on that front. We have strikers who are capable of scoring, it is just that they didn’t manage to.”

Looking to the future
One of the strikers Bazeley was referring to is Stuart Holthusen, who almost put his side ahead against Italy when he won a penalty in the 18th minute, only to see the shot blocked by goalkeeper Simone Scuffet. Fourteen minutes into the match against Côte d’Ivoire another Holthusen strike was kept out, this time by the African side’s first-choice keeper Seck Diabagate.

The young forward spoke to FIFA.com about his side’s goal drought: “It’s a huge let-down for us all, because we got so close to scoring on a number of occasions, but the truth is we didn’t get one and we let in 11. As a striker that makes me really sad. We watched the tape of our game against Italy, and there was this gloomy atmosphere because we should have come away with a better result.”

Putting the pain of the wasted chances behind him, Holthusen is looking to learn lessons from his experience: “It was an exciting experience for us. It was so great to come to a country like UAE and take part in such an amazing tournament. I reckon our involvement here will help our progression in the future.”

One positive he can take is the increased possibility of elevation to the professional ranks. Holthusen, who wears the No14 shirt for his country, is currently on the books of domestic outfit Onehunga Sports: “We’ve only got two professional footballers in the side at the moment, and I think that the rest of us played really well and should get some offers. Putting on a good show at a World Cup is a great way to get noticed.”

But the youngster’s ambitions go much further than thoughts of professional glory. His mind is already on a return to the international stage, when the FIFA U-20 World Cup comes to New Zealand in two years time, and he is full of optimism: “We’ve been together for 18 months and I can honestly say we’re more friends than team-mates. Most of the players have what it takes to make the leap to the next level, and it will be exciting to all play together at the U-20 World Cup next year.”

Who knows? With a home crowd behind them, maybe Stuart and his team-mates will be able to achieve what they could not manage in UAE.