Aotearoa at the U20 World Cup: Spottie Dramas vs Colombia

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The mysterious collective of hypothetical folks known as ‘they’ always reckon that penalties are a cruel way to decide a game of football. That’s not really true. Penalties are one player staring down a large goal, twelve yards out, with only a goalkeeper between them and success. It’s the essence of football in a little nutshell. Kick the ball into the net. Of course there’s luck involved but it’s more skilful than most people realise and anyway if you didn’t wanna deal with spotties then try scoring one extra goal in the previous 120 minutes instead. Gotta split ‘em somehow. Nah what’s cruel is when a goalkeeper makes his third save in a row but it’s ordered to be retaken because he jumped early and the entire momentum of the shootout swings in that moment.

I don’t want to get bitter about this because knockout footy tends to go this way. Just because we had a team good enough to challenge deep into the tournament (and if they’d won this game, they’d have faced Panama or Ukraine in the next round for a spot in the semis) doesn’t mean that they would. All you can do in these tournaments, in this sport, in all of life, is to put yourself in the best position to succeed and the rest is up to fate/luck/spiritual providence. The kiwi lads did that. They showed up and competed at a level that we’ve never seen from a New Zealand side at a FIFA tournament (definitely not a men’s side, at least).

Four years ago we made the knockouts of this tournament for the first time and lost 2-1 to Portugal in the R16. That was in Aotearoa. Two years ago we made the knockouts again, this time without home advantage (hosts get top seeding in their groups so it’s more tangible than just favourable crowds). But they lost 6-0 to the USA. This year we went down on penalties having had an equal share of the game against a quality South American nation and thus we have the luxury of complaining about the bogus refereeing decision that cost us. And it’s definitely a luxury. You have to be pretty good for a refereeing decision to be the difference. Normally it’s defensive mistakes and a lack of attacking firepower that do ya for.

With that necessary context out of the way now, the decision to allow Andres Perea to retake his penalty after Michael Woud had saved it was ridiculous. It’s a letter-of-the-law decision which takes nothing into account of the emotions of the penalty shootout and it’s a precedent they have no hope of being consistent with. Every keeper jumps off their line early with penalties. If you want to have them all retaken then we’ll be in for some very long spottie duels in the future – especially if they’re handing out yellows too because once the starter’s been sent off then nobody’s ever gonna miss with a fullback standing there in gloves.

Whether or not Woud was off his line (and I think he probably was, based on replays – he jumps to his left as Perea hits his final stride) isn’t really the point at all. It’s more that a decision like that ruins the rest of the contest. On a yellow card with a warning in his pocket, Woud could not afford to be hoofing himself about and, even for a bloke with plenty of self-belief like Woudy, that tiny element of doubt was enough. After saving the first three he faced, he then conceded the next five including the retake and that doesn’t feel like a coincidence. Woud was compromised. That decision swung the whole shootout from a place of dominance for NZ to where they lost all momentum and doubt is death when it comes to spotties.

Which meant that, sadly, Michael Woud was denied his grand moment in the spotlight despite saving two (three) penalties in a row. He had been pretty quiet all tournament despite his obvious pedigree, not really having too many saves to make and certainly not before this game. Here’s hoping this is fuel for the rest of his international career because let me just say that I don’t think he’ll be very far at all off challenging Stefan Marinovic for the top spot with the senior team when the All Whites (eventually) next play in November. He might even get him.

Flashing back a couple hours, Des Buckingham rested most of his dudes for the defeat against Uruguay and so in turn he recalled the entire lot of them for the round of sixteen, reverting to the same eleven that started the first two games. Which meant Max Mata had to be content with a spot on the bench, his was the only real debatable one there. As such it was uncharted territory for most of them when they fell behind after eleven minutes, a sloppy free kick was conceded outside the box by Waine and it was delivered beautifully in from Johan Carbonero and the header courtesy of Andres Reyes was even better. Nothing Mike Woud nor any of them could really do about it once Reyes rose up.

New Zealand didn’t concede in those first two games so they obviously didn’t trail in any of them either. Adversity is a tricky thing to deal with when you’re whole tournament is on the line and only Sarpreet Singh from amongst the first choice attackers had played with a deficit during this tournament… and they lost that game 2-0. So another test in what was already comfortably their most difficult game (the difference between Uruguay and Colombia was negligible, Uruguay probs a tad stronger but the approach to that game from both teams meant it didn’t really matter), and pleasingly this team did exactly what you’d hope they would do: they continued to play their own game with confidence and were rewarded before the break when Eli Just poked in from a lovely Libby Cacace ball into the box. Usually it’s Just putting in those deliveries.

Other than that, there were a handful of smaller chances, most of them falling the way of Callum McCowatt who was clearly desperate to do something. Dude was poised to be brilliant in Poland but didn’t actually end up scoring a goal and was subbed off early in the first game and didn’t play the third. That’s not to say he was poor by any means, the complete opposite, he just didn’t get the headline grabbing moments he usually saves for the big games – like the last two Premiership finals, for example. He was looking sharp here though, while Joe Bell and Nando Pijnaker were absolutely brilliant. Bell with his midfield maestro abilities, he was the best player at the tournament for the kiwis and this was his best performance. While Nando was a bloody monster at the back there. Winning absolutely everything that came near him and his passing out from the back is really underrated too. Chuck in a busy game from Just, a typically dependable Cacace, and George Stanger doing some things and the NZers were well in this one.

But this is knockout footy now, you know. The big stage. Turning up and playing well are the minimum requirements simply to compete. The Young All Whites, the Yung A-Dubs, shaded the shot tallies most of the way but Colombia were always a threat, especially on the counter attack when they could unleash the pace of Luis Sinisterra and his (less effective) buddies. As the game went into the second half, New Zealand got a little more on top but never in a way where they weren’t vulnerable. Michael Woud had to make a couple big saves. Eli Just had a lob cleared off the line. Max Mata was subbed on early in the second half for Ben Waine with McCowatt sliding to the wing. Clearly this was a game that would be decided by one goal if it would be decided at all and the end to end nature of it was utterly nerve-shredding.

Into extra time and Mata had a header which was acrobatically parried away by keeper Kevin Mier. It was notable that Coach Buck brought Mata on in the 54th minute but then refrained from making another change until the 112th when Matt Conroy replaced Eli Just. Good thing most of these lads got some rest in the third game after all if a full nine of them would need to go 120 minutes here. Not like this was an easily paced game either. Colombia by contrast made subs in the 57th, 76th, 92nd, and 105th minute – constantly injecting more energy.

Then, having watched the kiwi defence struggle with the pace of the Colombian attackers only to keep on repelling them with powerful challenges and clever positioning, finally there was a chance where it felt like it’d all be undone. Johan Carbonero squared one over to Ivan Angulo after a rapid counter attack from a poor Joe Bell dead ball routine, going low to nobody in particular (one of only two poor bits of play from that lad, the other being his missed spottie). Angulo had only the keeper to beat, it wasn’t completely dissimilar to the position Just scored from… but he inexplicably hit it straight at a desperate Woud with a shanked effort.

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That was how we ended up with penalties and once you get to that stage it’s a fresh contest. A few times I was reminded of Colombia’s World Cup defeat on penalties to England at the 2018 World Cup, with England overcoming a large psychic barrier to win that shootout. One of the things I adored about that game was how Gareth Southgate got his lads to take control of their situation, the keeper running 20-30 metres to personally hand the ball over to the next taker each time so that they could own the moment. Curiously Colombia were doing that same thing here. Plus they always celebrated with the keeper so as not to isolate him – one dude even forgetting and then getting yelled at to go give Mier a pat on the back for good luck or whatever. Those mind tricks make a difference.

So you have to give huge credit to the mental fortitude of those Colombia fellas, especially Andres Perea, for getting back into it. Perea would have looked a right muppet if he’d missed the same penalty twice but he stepped up, threw in the gentle shimmy run-up (which he hadn’t don’t the first time) and stroked that thing into the same part of the goal whilst sending Woud the other way. But you have to admit that Joe Bell’s kick before that was pretty mud. If he’d scored that it would have been 2-0 after two each.

And even then we were still in a decent position where scoring the last three would have locked it in. Sure enough, Max Mata and Callum McCowatt hit excellent strikes to go with a beauty from Sarpreet Singh and there’s your three top forwards taking care of business. But Gianna Stensness took the fourth and I don’t think it’s come down yet. Lad tried to emulate his stunner against Norway but somebody messed with the range finder and he seemed to think he was even further out as he blasted that sucker over the bar to allow Colombia back on level terms. Liberato Cacace did the dependable thing as always and scored in sudden death, leading to this iconic moment…

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… but Matty Conroy couldn’t repeat the dose. Colombia had scored five straight at that point and New Zealand were clinging on. Shootouts don’t usually swing three ways. When one team takes the initiative, there’s still time for the other to snatch it back as happened here. But that third swing is for the gods. So it goes.

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