5 Apr 2019

Under-20 coach confident of players heading into World Cup

12:36 pm on 5 April 2019

Leon Birnie set the bar pretty high for his colleagues.

New Zealand have qualified for the FIFA Under 20 World Cup in Poland.

The New Zealand under-20 team qualified last year for the FIFA Under-20 Men's World Cup in Poland. Photo: OFC via Phototek

The Young Football Ferns' third-place finish at last year's FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup was one for the ages. Birnie ended up a coach of the year finalist at the Halberg Awards, while the deeds of the players were celebrated the length and breadth of the country.

Now comes the turn of coach Des Buckingham and the men's under-20 side, whose own world cup kicks off next month in Poland. Pooled with Uruguay, Norway and Honduras, New Zealand will need a bit of luck to improve upon their best previous finish at the tournament, which was being eliminated at the round of 16.

They won't want for inspiration, though, after what Anna Leat, Amelia Abbott and company achieved in Uruguay.

"It's a great thing,'' Buckingham said of the under-17 team's deeds.

"New Zealand in terms of general sporting success, if you look at the Olympic sports, I think we have the third-highest medal return per capita, so we punch above our weight and I think it's okay to say that.

"I wouldn't see that [under-17 success] as a burden; it's a nice challenge. It shows that it can be done and we're confident in the group of players that we have.

"We've probably got more players playing in the professional space than we ever have and, having been around the country and with what I've seen at the ISPS [Handa] clubs, the standard is very high.

"If we can get them all together and prepare as well as we can, it certainly provides us with tonnes of inspiration to go as far we can.''

Buckingham is likely to name his 21-man squad on 13 May, ahead of their opening match of the tournament against Honduras on 25 May (NZ time).

The one potential complication is that Sarpreet Singh and Liberato Cacace (both Wellington Phoenix), Dane Ingham (Brisbane Roar), Michael Woud (Willem II), Max Mata (Grasshoppers Zurich) and Trevor Zwetsloot (Werder Bremen) might all still be playing when Buckingham wants the squad to leave for Poland on 5 May.

If the Phoenix, for example, were to make this season's A-League final, that's not until 18 May.

"The clubs have been very good so far and we're just trying to find out, if we did select them, what's the earliest we could get them,'' said Buckingham.

Group C is an intriguing one. Buckingham had wanted Group A or C, because the teams share the same hotels, training grounds and stadiums as Poland.

All facilities are good at a world cup, he said, but the ones reserved for the hosts tend to be extra good.

On the park, New Zealand beat Honduras at this event last time, en route to progressing out of their group thanks to a draw with Vietnam. That tournament was eventually won by England, but they won't be in Poland after being eliminated 3-0 by Norway in the qualification phase.

Uruguay, meanwhile, underlined their credentials by knocking Brazil out to qualify.

Buckingham says there will be no easy games, but that the team remain positive about progressing to the knockout stage. Not just because of their playing ability, but the work he's put into knowing them as people.

Buckingham's had 69 players through national camps but, more importantly, spent time with them all at the coalface. So that's meant trips to colleges in the United States and weeks with the likes of Woud, Zwetsloot and Mata in Europe, as well as those back in the New Zealand league.

When you're potentially taking players away for a month, it pays to understand who you're dealing with, he said.

"You know, you can come into a four-day camp and act a certain way for four days, so it's really important you get to know them as people and for them to understand us and what we're trying to do. Those visits have really helped form relationships.''