When their teams sealed qualification to the FIFA U-17 World Cup, most national federations lost no time in scheduling exposure trips for their players abroad which included competitive matches against foreign teams.
One of the rare exceptions to this rule was New Zealand. After having thumped New Caledonia 7-0 in February this year to seal qualification to the U-17 World Cup, the team has not played a single friendly against anyone from outside the country.
"Of course, we wanted to play a few international matches before the tournament. But we simply cannot afford that. In terms of financial resources, there's not a lot of it available back home. Whatever resources there are, go to the men's national team. We accept that. It's not ideal, but it's something we have to deal with. So we deal with it," the New Zealand U-17 team's coach, Danny Hay, said on Monday before adding, "Even getting our team to Australia to play against them would be a massive expense for us, what with flights and the staying expenses. The truth is, going into the qualifying tournament (OFC U-17 Championships) itself cost us a big chunk of our budget since it was in Tahiti this time. It's one of the most expensive places in the world to go to. It was a burden in fact."
Compounding the issue further is New Zealand's location, which makes it more expensive for teams to travel there.
"If you look at where New Zealand is located geographically, it is very difficult for us to get to other parts of the world. You look at where the hotbeds of football are — Europe, South America, and even parts of Asia now. They're all a long way from New Zealand. We've got limited financial resources so for us to get junior teams together and get them playing overseas, costs a lot of money. It's something we simply cannot afford to do," Hay lamented.
In such circumstances, Oceania countries like Tahiti came up with more novel ways of giving the U-17 national team some much needed game time. With the Oceania U-17 Championships scheduled in their country in February 2017, Tahiti enrolled the U-17 team in the national league.
Hay said that let alone a whole team, even getting a couple of players a starting XI chance in a league team was a challenge.
"Personally, the best case scenario would be that our U-17 and U-20 players have a full-time spot in our national league. But that's down to the national body to decide. And the local franchises would have to agree to it. But I think for the betterment of football in our country and development of our players, that should be happening. It's a no-brainer.
"The clubs that are in the national league are all franchise based, so it costs them a fair bit of money to be there. Some teams would probably oppose that. The onus needs to fall on these league clubs to give opportunities to young players as opposed to bringing in players from overseas," Hay said.
In a country where rugby is the national identity, football is a distant second best, revealed Hay.
Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that all the teams competing in the New Zealand Football Championship are semi-amateur where players have to take up jobs to sustain themselves.
"Rugby is our national identity. And it's always going to be our national identity. We love to think that rugby is THE most important sport in the world. Globally people will tell you that football is a million times bigger.
"The only team in New Zealand that's fully professional, Wellington Phoenix, play their football in the Australian A-League. Most players who are part of the national league will have a regular job as well. They train with their team after or before work. That for our players is a pathway."
Things though are rapidly improving for the sport back in New Zealand, said Hay.
"The youth development system is starting to improve back home. We're now starting to invest quite heavily in coach education. A vast majority of football clubs have now got a director of football. They've got paid coaches. Most of the big clubs are now trying to do things properly.
"Funny thing now is that we got more junior football players than rugby players by a long way. Football is now the highest participation sport at the junior level. A lot more than rugby and way more than cricket. Compared to my time, you have a more genuine pathway to succeed. The world's a smaller place now. You now have more opportunities to get spotted. Opportunities like this World Cup. In terms of football being a genuine career path."
Hay is someone who has walked the path that many youngsters in the country today are hoping to. Starting his career at the semi-professional Waitakere United, he would soon join Australia's Perth Glory before moving to Premier League club Leeds United in 1999. He pointed out that while playing in the European leagues is still the aim for many of the football-playing youngsters back in New Zealand, they were taking different routes to achieving it.
"A lot of our players are now going to the United States and coming through their university programs and then getting drafted into MLS sides. And then there's the rare player who is good enough to play directly for big clubs."
He's referring to Michael Woud, who was part of New Zealand's 2015 U-17 World Cup team. After being spotted at the 2014 Nike Cup at Manchester (while playing for Waitakere City), he was signed by Sunderland.
Cases like this would have raised the hopes of everyone back in New Zealand that they too can be the next Woud.
Hay, though, is realistic.
"We've got to be realistic about the chances of our players playing at the highest level. Yes, we want that to happen. We want them to become professional footballers and make a living out of the game, but the reality, as history will tell you, is that there will be one or two who get that opportunity and might genuinely make it in the game. So the priority for us is making sure that even while they're here, in the back of their minds, they're still concentrating on their schoolwork and there is still some focus on that."
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Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 18:24:23 IST