Aotearoa at the U20 World Cup: More Magic vs Norway

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For roughly seventy minutes the U20 lads had themselves in a real arm wrestle, a proper FIFA tournament game. Following on from the Honduras win which showcased what they could do at their best, we had a very different challenge in a well-organised Norway side that wasn’t going to allow themselves to be carved open in the first half hour the way that New Zealand did to their last opponents.

The quick one-twos creating overlaps out wide leading to dangerous cut-backs like Honduras couldn’t handle? We didn’t hardly get any of that until near the very end when things were stretched. There was a definite intent to press with the front four but the Norwegian CBs Ulrik Fredriksen and Leo Skiri Østigård were unfazed, same deal with Tobias Børkeeiet dropping in. In fact if a bit of rushing up top was gonna cause any trouble it looked way more likely to be back at the other end where Michael Woud was getting a little too laidback with the ball at his feet. And there was nothing happening on the counter attack against a tight defence either.

Yet this kiwi side still kept asking questions. With Sarpreet Singh ghosting around and dictating things in the attacking third, there was plenty of enterprise from an unchanged XI to the side that beat Honduras. Norway’s organisation meant a fair bit of having to pass the ball back to Woud for a clearance up field, which in turn put Callum McCowatt in the wars against some big defenders, but New Zealand kept on searching for ways to pick the lock. Libby Cacace had a few ideas, skipping past defenders. There were a number of free kicks in dangerous areas (maybe Sarpreet better leave them all to Callum in the meantime though). The odd bit of interplay when McCowatt could show for an option. Nothing decisive but NZ edged a first half in which both teams sorta cancelled each other out and that was enough right there to feel like the game was there for the taking.

Then Norway began the second half really well, yet another test for Des Buckingham’s team. It’s one thing to boss things when you’re 3-0 up after half an hour but at nil-all you’re always vulnerable to a single mistake that could ruin it all. Or a single moment of magic but hold that thought. You wanna know how well these dudes have all bought in to what this team can achieve? Check them out in defence. See the strikers all gassing back to help out, ensuring there weren’t any gaps to be exploited. Getting bodies in the way. Then, of course, gassing back the other way if there was a hint of a counter attack. Which there usually wasn’t but still. The effort counts.

There were some sketchy moments along the way. Only a couple but each time Norway got into shooting position they got too cute with it. Two or three times where they broke the defence, exposing a lack of pace at the back there from the kiwis, but Erling Braut Håland kept hesitating to shoot or somebody passed when they shouldn’t have, that sort of thing. Håland, the son of Alf-Inge, is supposed to be the next superstar of Norwegian footy (he’s just signed with Red Bull Salzburg in Austria) but the dude got shown up by Sarpreet Singh here, how about that? Also a few times they worked an overlap down our right only to chuck in a poor cross. Shout out to Callan Elliot here. As a converted fullback, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d be the weak link in this team but that hasn’t been the case at all. Wee fella’s bringing the goods each time.

Hence this was a proper World Cup contest, two teams even enough that it became about that big-game mentality and which team could avoid that devastating error or find that stunning game-breaking moment. And with just under twenty minutes left, Gianni Stensness did this…

Funny thing is that during the first half Stensness had misplaced a couple passes and shown a poor touch or two and it had me wondering if he was the right dude to be playing that defensive midfield role ahead of, say, Trevor Zwetsloot. Like, what was it that set Stensness apart? (I believe I’m on record as saying I prefer him as a CB, which still stands). Well, it seems I’ve got my answer now. That, my friends, is what we call a thunderbastard. Still rising as it rocked the net.

Then of course with Norway all rattled and needing an equaliser, the game opened up some more and just as we saw last time with the NZ U20s showing a ruthless attitude towards continuing to play their game and create chances, here we got more of the same. Eli Just suddenly roared into focus with more space to work in and those overlaps and square balls were back in contention… with Just setting up the second goal that very way to kill it off. An own goal from John Kitolano in the 83rd minute – that dude’s on the books at Wolverhampton Wanderers by the way. Eli Just is and remains The Assist King, in case you were wondering.

Of course it could have been different had Norway been more ruthless with their chances. But that’s all part of the picture, it was the kiwis who brought that killer mentality instead and ultimately that’s why they won. That and a brilliant defensive effort, with Nando Pijnaker in particular putting up some ten outta ten scorecards. Joe Bell as well. Jeez that guy’s a talent. It’s not just that this team have kept consecutive clean sheets at a FIFA tournament… it’s that Michael Woud has not had a difficult save to make in 180 minutes. That’s almost incomprehensible.

This puts them top of the group with the game against Uruguay to follow. That’s a chance to rest a few blokes now that they’ve already qualified for the round of sixteen but how Coach Buck approaches it will say a lot about how far this team believes they can do. It’s a youth World Cup, things aren’t stacked for the usual powerhouses to win it all like with senior stuff. Brazil are not at this World Cup. Neither are England, the defending champs, who were knocked out by this same Norway team. No Spain, Netherlands, or Germany either. Look, I’m not saying we can win the entire thing, that’d be absolutely mental, but if we avoid defeat against Uruguay then we top the group and probably face a third-place qualifier in the R16 and that would be winnable with the belief and momentum this team is hoarding right now.

Right now the other nations here are looking at New Zealand as a surprise package, though those of us who’ve been following these players for a few years were already confident they could at least rustle a few feathers. I haven’t been surprised by what’s happened… only blessed to have seen it. Things got tougher from game one to game two and they responded wonderfully to the different challenge. Now they have to do the same as things get tougher once more in game three ahead of the toughest one of all: a knockout game four. The task now is to continue to step it up when it matters because they’ve already proven the most difficult thing by showing they can compete at this level. Most NZ teams go to FIFA tournaments and set up to defend on the understanding that it’s their only way to go – this team plays some real football though. None of that back foot jazz. They score goals. It’s a combination that I’m not sure we’ve ever had before, certainly not from a men’s team.

A note on Michael Woud’s goalkeeping. Clearly he doesn’t need to hang onto the ball at his feet so long and there were a couple nervous moments because of that… but nothing that caused any tangible harm. One got charged down for a goal kick and that was all. Woud’s got a fantastic physique or a keeper with shoulders the size of boulders and long limbs. He’s proved in past tournaments that he can be a shot-stopper. Now here’s a twenty year old kiwi keeper who is confident with the ball at his feet and, as he’s shown for Willem II already, he’s resilient when it comes to his own mistakes. He’s decisive when he sees the ball within range and isn’t scared to go out and claim it amongst traffic. He stepped out of his box a couple times to deal with long balls too.

If you want polished goalkeeping then watch a 30 year old veteran. This dude is still learning his craft and already we can see so many different aspects to his game in which he’s got full confidence. Tell you what, Stefan Marinovic was locked on All Whites keeper for a couple years there but lately things haven’t been so swell for him and here’s Woudy emerging onto the senior scene at club level… by the time the All Whites next play in November, when Woud’s in-season with Willem again and Marinovic is at the Wellington Phoenix… that’ll be a genuine debate.

I was gonna finish this piece with a thing about how this lot, like the U17 women before them, are redefining what the kiwi footballer is capable of but then decided that it’d look stupid in hindsight if they lose handily to Uruguay on Friday morning. Same reason why I don’t wanna hear anything about golden generations either until they’ve won the World Cup or every one of these players has retired in 20 years – that’s a past tense description. Right now it’s enough just to keep setting the alarm clock, keep rewatching those goals, keep imagining Sarpreet Singh in a Barcelona jersey or Joe Bell in the midfield for Juventus, and savouring the journey that we’re on. It’s possible this team just peaked. More than possible. But there’s also a chance that there’s something even more special still to come…

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