Tuesday, Feb 20, 2018 | Last Update : 07:12 PM IST
Coming out of a long winter, New Zealand hardly had any international game behind them barrring the U-17 World Cup qualifiers.
A small country with less than five million population, low temperatures and limited international exposure means New Zealand invariably head to the world stage as underdogs in world sports events. But yet they leave their mark be it rugby, football, cricket, hockey and other sports on the world stage every now and then. In rugby they are among the best teams in the world.
Even qualifying for a Fifa event is a major achievement for the small Asia Oceania nation and they have already shown they are no pushovers by giving tough fights to quality sides Brazil and England in practice games at Mumbai Football Arena, Andheri Sports Complex as they prepare for the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup in India.
The Kiwis initially found hardly any takers in the crowd in the first practice game against Brazil but they won over local fans with their grit and determination. One could see the crowd chanting “New Zealand! New Zealand!” even as they waved their national flag in the second practice game against England on Sunday.
Kiwi coach Daniel Hay will expect the crowd will support them in the first two FIFA U-17 World Cup fixtures against Turkey and Paraguay at DY Patil Stadium in Nerul since they have been stationed in Mumbai for more than a week already.
“We have enjoyed the hospitability here. The crowd has been good, hope we continue to enjoy some support,” former New Zealand skipper Hay said.
Coming out of a long winter, New Zealand hardly had any international game behind them barrring the U-17 World Cup qualifiers. They set their focus on acclimatising early in Mumbai. They did pretty well to adjust to humid conditions in the city and showed character to strectch Brazil and England and were unlucky not to draw both games.
“Brazil and England were two quality teams that we have played in two years now. And the way boys showed character in both the games in humid conditions is great. We could have drawn both the games but playing against two quality sides and getting this result is also a positive. Hopefully with few days to go, we will work on our game, rectify a few errors and be switched on every time,” he said.
In 2009, New Zealand progressed to the knockout phase of a FIFA tournament for the first time. They reprised the feat two years later in Mexico, and again at the most recent tournament in Chile were they lost to Brazil in the pre-quarters. They will be hoping to repeat the same if not go one step further. But they have a difficult group to pass through.
“We have Mali in our group. They are the African champions and statistics say in U-17 and
U-20 World Cups, the African teams are very strong. We are under no illusions. Paraguay is a strong side and any side that qualifies out of Europe — like Turkey — is very difficult to face and this is going to be a difficult challenge,” Hay said prior to the Brazil practice game.
Hay played as a centreback in English Premiership side Leeds United and his side were up against England on Sunday, who had players from junior teams of top Premiership sides. Yet the Kiwis showed character and England needed Rhian Brewster’s late two goals to seal the deal 3-2.
Hay took charge of the New Zealand team a few months prior to the 2015
U-17 World Cup and led the Kiwis to a first ever win over a South American opponent in a FIFA men’s tournament, a 2-1 win over Paraguay. He will be hoping for a similar result against Paraguay at DY Patil stadium on October 9.
“I’ve had two years with this group and their understanding of the style of play will be a step ahead than last time. We need to rectify a few things and need bit of luck. We are physically strong and technically good,” he said.