Des Buckingham has named his 21-man squad for the upcoming U20 World Cup in Poland in five weeks and, mate, it’s a doozy. There are senior internationals, there are overseas professionals, there are Ole Academy stars, there are Wellington Phoenix grads. Drawing from a pool of over 70 elite players in Aotearoa, Bucks has narrowed things down to size with basically zero hurdles to keep him from picking his full-strength team.
Which is pretty relevant because you may recall when they went away to the Oceania champs in Papua New Guinea last year there were all sorts of withdrawals. None of the Ole lads were available, nor were a bunch of Nix players and a few of those pros. At the time there were some remarkably dumb people arguing in the ol’ mainstream media channels that if people aren’t willing to play at that stage then they shouldn’t be considered for the World Cup itself. Funny how you won’t hear a single thing to that extent now, because qualifying’s done and forgotten about. Good thing you and I don’t play those silly tricks.
But what that qualifying tourney did do was it showed just how stacked we are for talent in this particular U20 cycle. Even with more than a dozen of the top lads out, there was still a super strong team that emerged and with a Premiership season in the bag since then that pool of talent has only gotten deeper. Really don’t envy Bucko and his team for having to break the bad news to some extremely promising players who didn’t make the cut. One hundy percent there will be players who go on to have professional careers overseas who didn’t crack it this time around. There’ll be future full internationals who were overlooked. In fact the squad is so strong that I’d already prepared myself to be disappointed at some of the fellas who missed out… which you’d better believe I am.
Feast your eyes upon the squad as selected…
Here you’ve got, probably headlining the crew, five members of the triumphant Eastern Sububrs squad that won the Premiership a month back. Callum McCowatt, Elijah Just, Dominic Woolridge, Dalton Wilkins, and Nando Pijnaker. You’ve also got six current members of the Wellington Phoenix, with Sarpreet Singh and Libby Cacace the standouts there. They’re joined by Gianni Stensnesss, Callan Elliot, and Ben Waine who have all made senior A-League debuts since the turn of the year. Keeper Zac Jones is also a regular for the WeeNix, while Willem Ebbinge was in the same boat but is off to Harvard University in a few months so long as the old academic standard’s been upheld. Don’t forget to bring the textbooks away on camp, son.
Joe Bell is already at uni in the States and he’s a Wellington Phoenix grad himself. There are a fair few players already in professional ranks overseas too. Goalkeeper Michael Woud is the most illustrious, he made his Dutch Eredivisie debut for Willem II recently and has already established himself as the backup keeper there having joined from Sunderland’s academy less than 12 months ago. Max Mata has made the hop over to Grasshoppers in Switzerland recently where he’s playing for their youth side at the moment, while Trevor Zwetsloot does the same for Werder Bremen’s reserves in Germany. Both old clubs of Wynton Rufer, which isn’t really a coincidence. Leon van den Hoven was a breakthrough player for Eastern Suburbs the season before last and he’s now in the reserves at RKC Waalwijk in Holland.
Then there’s George Stanger. Son of Scottish rugby icon Tony Stanger, the country’s all-time leading try scorer, he’s one who has come out of the blue in the last few months. While Stanger the Elder was on holiday in the 90s and playing a bit of club rugby in Australia, he met his future wife who just so happened to have been born in New Zealand. Shout out to whoever did that private investigation work. Humphrey Bogart lives.
Stanger’s a defender who plays for Hamilton Academical over in Scotland. One of those Tommy Smith/Mike McGlinchey type ones where they clearly don’t have a massive allegiance to New Zealand but it’s enough to qualify. Smithy and WeeMac have been great servants for the All Whites (most of the time, at least, aye Tom?). Even Henry Cameron has done fine things for Team Wellington lately as he tries to get his career back on track after a horror injury on All Whites debut. I’m always kinda sceptical by these slightly tenuous links, especially at a time when we need the added outside depth less than ever. But I’ve never seen Stanger play and I don’t know what he’ll bring to the squad, so benefit of the doubt. He’s Scottish after all. Can’t really go wrong.
And that leaves the locals, with Cameron Brown a squad member for Auckland City and currently doing his thing for Central United in the winter league, while Matt Conroy and Dane Schnell are Western Springs fellas who played for Waitakere in the last Premmy season. I think that’s everyone.
The first frustration is that it’s only a 21-man squad but FIFA still make you pick three goalies, which feels like a waste when you’re way more likely to use an extra outfield option than a third keeper. But shout out to Cameron Brown all the same. Brown and Jones will be backing up Woud, who is clearly the number one option with the gloves, but both of them were at the OFC qualifiers so I guess that counts for something. Ten players from that qualifying squad have been picked here. The others are Elliot, Bell, Ebbinge, Schnell, van den Hoven, Zwetsloot, Conroy, and Mata.
There are also five players from the previous U20 World Cup back for another swing (Woud, Brown, Bell, Singh, McCowatt). The only one who didn’t get picked who was eligible was Dane Ingham and that’s because he was injured and unavailable. Which is a pity because it kinda leaves us without a right back. Callan Elliot can play there. Maybe Libby Cacace too, with Dalton Wilkins on the left. There are also seven players from the 2017 U17 World Cup squad, those chaps being: Jones, Cacace, LVDH, Just, Mata, Ebbinge, and Conroy.
I’d imagine that leaves Pijnaker and Stanger as the CBs. Stensness there in support. I’m not sure what kinda formation we’ll be looking at here. 4-3-3 would be a fitting one given how popular it is in the Premiership, though Buckingham’s English so he might be more conservative at a major tournament. Pretty used to having foreign-raised coaches telling us we have to play defensively at major tourneys as a kiwi footy fan so yeah. No digs at Buck though, he’s a top bloke and he’s given plenty to footy in Aotearoa. Probs a sneaky shot at the Welly Nix job now, come to mention it.
Supposing they chuck a top three out there then I’d love to see them just mimic the Eastern Suburbs crew. Get McCowatt and Just on the wings in roaming roles with Max Mata playing the Andre De Jong role in between them. Not sure that Mata will be available for the first games or two since he was sent off late in the final of qualifying, so maybe Sarpreet Singh plays further forward and McCowatt goes central. Dunno. Midfielders Joe Bell and Trevor Zwetsloot pretty much have to be there, probably with Singh as the point of the triangle. Unless Singh’s playing amongst the forwards, in which case pick your favourite Suburbs old boy: van den Hoven or Woolridge. Willem Ebbinge could be a shot too, or even Dane Schnell. Then Ben Waine and Matty Conroy are going to give you great pace and energy off the bench. Squad sorted.
But I wasn’t kidding when I said there were some excellent player left out of this squad completely. Here’s an alternative 21-man squad of fellas that didn’t make the cut…
And even that one was kinda tricky to select. Each and every one of those players was involved in camps or squads during this cycle, by the way. Of them I’m most surprised that Matt Palmer wasn’t picked to be an alternative at centre-forward, or that Boyd Curry missed out since there’s not a huge amount of central defender depth in the squad. Gonna guess that Zwetsloot could play CB if needed.
Just goes to show what we’ve got to pick from. Next step is to match what the young All Whites have done at each of the last two World Cups and qualify for the knockouts. Maybe even win a knockout game if that’s not being too greedy. We’ve got Honduras, Norway, and Uruguay in our group. We beat Honduras last U20 World Cup with a 3-1 result boosted by a Myer Bevan double. That’s a winnable game in the opener, get the three points there and see if we can snatch a result against one of the other two and that’ll do it. Four points was enough to advance the last two times, once as a third-place qualifier and once in second.
It’s a tough ask. All three of those teams are going to bring real quality and you can’t judge an U20 team by its senior team. Just gotta turn up and see how it goes. It all begins in five weeks so feel free to get excited. U20 Men’s World Cup in May. Women’s World Cup in June. Men’s U17 World Cup in October. Oh and the All Whites have a fixture confirmed for November!
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