FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Oceania big guns New Zealand hope to finally leave mark on world stage

In the wondrous history of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), where tales of victories with double-figure margins abound, New Zealand has been a constant at the top. In a confederation filled with underdogs, New Zealand have cemented their status as the only powerhouse ever since Australia left the OFC to join the more competitive Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

So, it came as no surprise when New Zealand sealed qualification to the 2017 U-17 World Cup by thrashing fellow qualifiers New Caledonia 7-0 in the final of the OFC U-17 Championship, their sixth successive title in the age group.

The matches before the final had seen New Zealand eviscerate Samoa 11-0 and thump Fiji 5-0. New Zealand were so dominant in the competition that they swept all the awards on offer too – forward Charles Spragg got the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball, while goalkeeper Zac Jones claimed the Golden Gloves Award. For good measure, New Zealand even snatched the Fair Play Award.

Here's how New Zealand thumped fellow qualifiers New Caledonia 7-0 in the final:

New Zealand's domination of the confederation is hardly a surprise. While other teams like New Caledonia and Samoa have amateurs or semi-professionals playing even for the national men's team, all of the New Zealand's U-17 players play for the youth teams of professional clubs like Wellington Phoenix, who are based in New Zealand, but compete in the Australia's A-League, or teams like Auckland City, which compete in the New Zealand Football Championship.

As a result, their players get a structured football training from a younger age than their Oceanic counterparts.

Take Golden Boot winner Spragg for instance. At the age of four, he joined Auckland's Papakura City Football Club, where he would go on to spend a majority of his childhood along with another New Zealand U-17 player Max Mata. He soon moved to Waitakere United Football Club and travelled to England to compete in the Nike Cup, where they faced off against the creme de la creme of club football like Chelsea and AS Roma.

However, the young Turks will be well advised to not get carried away by the margin of wins in the OFC U-17 Championship.

If history has any lessons for this young team, it is that their dominance in OFC competitions will matter for zilch at the world stage. Only last month, the New Zealand U-20 team was shoved aside 6-0 by the USA in the Round of 16 stage at the U-20 World Cup.

Understandably then, in seven previous appearances in the U-17 World Cup, the New Zealanders have made it to the Last-16 stage on three occasions, but have never progressed further.

The U-17 event in India then will be New Zealand's opportunity to show that they're not just heavyweights in their own backyard.

"The World Cup is a great opportunity for young New Zealand players. You know we don't get to experience world class football in terms of opposition very often. It's also the first time our young players will get the opportunity to represent the country on the world stage. I know we have got a really top group of young men, so I'm looking forward to getting them there and seeing what they can do," coach Danny Hay told Firstpost after the U-17 World Cup draw in Mumbai after his side had drawn Mali, Paraguay and Turkey.

"It's tough, I'm not going to lie. You only need to look at European, African and South American qualifying to recognise that we have drawn three very big teams. Mali didn't lose at all. Paraguay played 12 games in South America and only lost once. And I think Turkey only lost to England and Spain, the top two sides in Europe. That pretty much says it all. It's going to be difficult, but a good challenge," Hay added.

At the 2015 World Cup too, New Zealand had been drawn in the same group as Paraguay. The Oceania side beat the South Americans 2-1 to make it to the last-16 stage where they eventually lost to Brazil. However, Hay believes that the South American outfit will be baying for blood this time around. "I spoke to their coach during the World Cup draw. They're definitely out for some revenge. And they won't allow that (losing to New Zealand) to happen again. They're an absolutely quality side," he added.
While Hay was handed the reigns of the team mid-way through the two-year World Cup campaign in 2015, this time around the 42-year-old has been around for the whole cycle. "We've had the full squad for a lot more time now. So we know a lot more about the players now in terms of style of playing and philosophy. New Zealand have got to do things pretty smartly because in terms of financial resources we are not even in the same realm of some of the other countries. We have to try and make the most of what we have," said Hay, who represented the national team for many years and was also the captain for a while.
His side's attacking intent was beyond doubt at the Oceania tournament, but bigger challenges await.

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Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 16:32:11 IST