FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015

FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015

30 May - 20 June

FIFA U-20 World Cup 2015

Payne: U-20s can strengthen football's hold in New Zealand

Auckland City midfielder Tim Payne
© FIFA.com

For Tim Payne, there really is no place like home. The young New Zealand international returned to his hometown of Auckland last year and found that absence - in his case, two years in England with Blackburn Rovers - had merely made his heart grow fonder.

"I know I'm biased but it's an amazing, beautiful city. Nowhere can beat it," he told FIFA.com. "There's water and beaches all around it's a great place to live. My old man owns a boat, so we're out in that right through the summer."

As well as returning to the Auckland he already knew and loved, Payne has seen a new side to New Zealand's biggest city. The revelation came when the 21-year-old returned from December's FIFA Club World Cup with his Auckland City team-mates and found that their historic third-place finish had captured the country's imagination.

"When we got back to the airport, it was amazing," he recalled. "There was a big crowd waiting for us, TV crews and so on, and that's pretty much unheard of for a football team in New Zealand. While we were away in Morocco, we were even the top item on the news a couple of times and, again, that's something completely new. The city also gave us an official civic reception last weekend, which was pretty cool. And we're up for a few national sports awards too.

"Look, New Zealand's still a rugby nation at heart. But there's been definite progress with football even in the past decade or so. At grassroots level, I believe there are actually more kids playing football than rugby now, and that's an achievement in itself. My old school, for example, used to have about five or six football teams whereas now there's more than 20 - which puts them ahead of rugby. So we're getting there at grassroots level and hopefully the U-20s can take things forward again."

There's been definite progress. At grassroots level, I believe there are more kids playing football than rugby now.

The FIFA U-20 World Cup, which will be played in May and June of this year, is without doubt the next big item on New Zealand's football calendar. Spread across seven cities and towns on the north and south islands, the tournament - famed for having showcased the likes of Diego Marardona, Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi - should build on the momentum Auckland City and the national team have helped establish.

Having represented New Zealand in each of the two most recent U-20 World Cups in Turkey and Colombia, Payne knows better than anyone just how significant the event could be for his nation's relationship with the beautiful game. And with Auckland set to hold the official draw on Tuesday, the All Whites midfielder has admitted to excitement about the competition's potential.

"These tournaments are massive," he told FIFA.com. "I've experienced it myself and the scale of it all is impressive. For me, it was just an amazing experience and a great education to be involved. Playing against top-quality opposition, testing yourself against the best, is obviously massively important, and the whole experience of being in a FIFA tournament is just so cool. You go from back home, being a kid with no-one knowing who you are, to being treated like a star.

"It's a great tournament and one I really hope the country gets behind. Hopefully the New Zealand boys do well and, playing in front of a home crowd, who knows what they can achieve? I'm excited for them because I know what a huge opportunity it is. I think it stood me in really good stead when I went over to England and got my move to Blackburn. After the U-20s, I felt ready for that kind of step and believed in myself that I was good enough to compete in that kind of environment."

Injuries and the instability at Blackburn ultimately dashed the great expectations that accompanied Payne's big move to England. But with this rising star having only recently turned 21, fresh interest from abroad - most notably in USA's Major League Soccer - means that his return to Auckland seems certain to be brief.

"Much as I love being home and playing for Auckland City, moving overseas is still necessary if you want to make a career and improve yourself," he said. "There's nothing definite at the minute, but I have a few things in the pipeline. Whatever happens though, Auckland will always be my home. And wherever I go, the plan will always be to come back at the end of my career.

"Anyone coming here for the U-20s will love it. Besides it being such a beautiful place, everyone here is very laidback and welcoming. It's like that all over New Zealand to be honest. There's a small-country mindset here and everyone just looks to get on with everyone else. That's a big part of what I love about it."

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