The Aotearoa Lads Are Poised To Bust Loose at the U20 World Cup

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There’s a men’s U20 World Cup starting in a few days and you should probably be excited about it. With quite possibly the strongest pool of age-group players New Zealand has ever had for one of these things, even Des Buckingham’s squad announcement felt like A Moment and based on their preparation for this thing this set of lads could genuinely be the real deal.

The group began in camp in Auckland at the start of the month before moving to Poland for the last two weeks of prep, plenty of time to get accustomed to the host nation ahead of what they hope will be a long stay. In the early hours of 12 May they played their first of two warm-up games against South Korea. The squad was missing a couple of pieces at the time and hadn’t played together as a unit yet but by coach Buck’s account they nudged the possession stats while bringing a positive attitude to their footy and if they’d been a tad more solid in the final third then they would have won. Instead Ben Waine chipped in with the goal in a 1-1 draw.

Sounds like there were plenty of subs with everyone who was available getting 45 mins (presuming that meant in this single game specifically too, coz counting any unannounced closed-door friendlies or inter-squad games makes no sense). So a positive result against a strong team that qualified runners-up in Asia, losing to Saudi Arabia in the final (who in turn had knocked Aussie out a round short of U20 WC qualification). Nicely done.

They then played Mexico last weekend, a squad that were runners-up to USA in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament last year. By then the kiwis will have had a better indication of what their best team looked like so the main task was, as the gaffer implored, to bring a more clinical nature to the attacking third this time. And… they did, beating Mexico 3-1 with Sarpreet Singh scoring twice and Callum McCowatt once. That Mexican team will be supremely talented. To get the win, even in a friendly game, is pretty huge so close to the tournament. Especially considering they play Honduras in their opener – a team that qualified from the same region as Mexico but with a worse record (the two didn’t play each other). But most of all it’s confirmation that this is an U20 World Cup team that is capable of scoring goals against strong opposition and to be honest there are very few occasions where a kiwi team has had that in their toolbox at a FIFA tournament for any age or gender.  

Now, neither of those games were broadcast to the public in any way and so info has been scarce. Which is fair enough, it’s an U20 World Cup after all. However NZ Football did tweet a couple snaps of the team versus Mexico and one of them included the starting eleven posing as they always do before an international game. Curiously they were all wearing different numbers to the ones on the official registrations, the cheeky buggers, and even more curious was that NZF swiftly deleted those photos. Keeping those cards close to the chest (prayers up for the social media crew who hopefully still have jobs). But the footy media keeps a close eye on these things, luckily, so you can know that they played a 4-2-3-1 formation with plenty of selection wrinkles there too.

Having Callan Elliot at right back is one. That’s where he got in for the Nix this season but he’s still at his best on the wing. Libby Cacace over Dalton Wilkins is fair enough – just guts to Wilkins that we have two excellent LBs. Michael Woud wasn’t there in time for the game and he’ll wear the gloves when it matters. Also Ben Waine up front is a funky one – probs coz Max Mata is suspended for the first two games after getting sent off in stoppage time of the Oceania final. They had to pick him though, not only because he’s more than worthy of a spot but also he’s the only proper striker in the squad with Matt Palmer and Luca Scimia missing the cut. Attacking talent aplenty but genuine centre forwards? Just the one.

The other funky one is having Gianni Stensness in midfield with el capitan Joe Bell, ahead of Leon van den Hoven, Dom Woolridge, or Trevor Zwetsloot. What a time to be alive when a New Zealand football team has an excess of quality midfielders, aye? Lots more on the squad here, btw.

That formation would also give them speedy options off the bench such as Matt Conroy, Dane Schnell, and perhaps even Wilkins in a more attacking role. Willem Ebbinge has great vision on the ball too – although clearly the main source of creativity will be the two goal scorers against Mexico: Sarpreet Singh and Callum McCowatt. Players often look at a tournament like this as a chance to put themselves in the shop window although only a rare few ever tend to get contracts off the back of it. With several of this team already with pro contracts as it is, there aren’t that many players who’ll be able to leverage this tourney but Callum McCowatt, who had an offer on the table from the same club as Wilkins and Eli Just signed for two weeks back, is definitely one. He opted against that deal in order to wait and see what things looked like after a successful U20 World Cup. After dominating the Premiership last season it’s only a matter of where and when with him and Macca seems poised to do some real damage in Poland.

This really is a team worth getting pumped up for. The men’s U20s had never won a game at a World Cup before we hosted the 2015 event and a 5-1 win over Myanmar was got them through into the knockouts back then where they were ground down by Portugal, losing 2-1. Two years later they beat Honduras and drew with Vietnam to make the knockouts for a second time… but were thrashed 6-0 by USA. This time they face Honduras in their opener, kicking off at 4am on Saturday so set the alarm, and having beaten them two years ago and having beaten Mexico a few days ago… they should fancy nothing less than a win there which would put them in a great position to make a third knockout round in a row.

With the ol’ third place finisher rule in place, a handy win in the opener and that might be enough. But this team is better than that. They’ll believe they can compete with Norway (6.30am on Tuesday) and Uruguay (4am the next Friday) as well. Both teams will be brutal. Norway have this dude Erling Haland (Alf-Inge’s son) who they reckon could be a star in the making so they’re not to be underestimated. And Uruguay have a couple dudes at Atletico Madrid, one at Barcelona, and a goalie from Juventus in their ranks. Ronald Araujo is the bloke at Barca and that’s a name to remember. Nothing will come easy, that’s for sure.

But after the U17 women showed what’s possible for Aotearoa on a global stage, the U20 fellas will be looking to channel that energy and not just make the knockouts but win a knockout game as well. It might all go belly-up but their warm-up performances suggest it ain’t just empty hype. This team could do some things.

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