Courtesy of Counties Manukau Sport Monthly
by Simon Kay
Thirteen. Unlucky for some. Certainly not an auspicious number for the New Zealand team which contested the last Under-17 World Cup soccer tournament in 1997.
The Junior All Whites were unexpected qualifiers after beating perennial nemesis Australia 1-0 in the Oceania final. Sadly, much of the gloss of that achievement was tarnished by lacklustre displays at the finals in Egypt.
The Kiwis were clearly outclassed, failing to net a goal and losing all three pool games, culminating in a 13-0 thrashing by Spain. That's a record score for this tournament, staged every two years since 1985.
Excuses can be made. Spain's leading teens are among the world's best, having won the most recent Under-20 World Cup and the European qualifying tournament for the Under-17 World Cup. Some of New Zealand's opponents that day were already aligned to clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona.
If a New Zealand Under-17 rugby team played Spain, chances are more than 13 tries would be scored. But excuses ultimately count for nought. The New Zealand sporting public can be a cynical, fickle bunch at times and during November, the credibility of local soccer rests with this current batch of Smokefree Junior All Whites.
Among the squad to take on the United States in the tournament's opening encounter at North Harbour Stadium on November 10 is Counties Manukau's Daniel Trent. The 17-year-old has played for Manukau City and Papatoetoe, attending Papatoetoe High until joining Kevin Fallon and most of his New Zealand team mates at Mt Albert Grammar this year.
He says playing in front of a crowd which will hopefully number more than 10,000 will be "nervous but exciting." New Zealand will be aiming to improve on the 0-0 draw achieved against the US at an international tournament in Christchurch last year, a game which saw Trent sent off.
Next up on November 13 is Uruguay, a team which could pose greater problems for the Kiwis. The Junior All Whites played Uruguay during a recent tour of South America. A central midfielder, Trent played well and scored a goal as New Zealand led 2-1 at halftime but "silly mistakes" saw the hosts run out 4-2 winners.
Trent says Glenn Turner, involved with both the
1997 and 1999 Under-17 teams, stressed in South America that
lapses in concentration could quickly prove costly: "Easy
goals, one after another, and the next thing you
The next thing you know, you're walking off the pitch shaking your head and wondering how you conceded 13 goals. But a better and more intense build-up for this year's team should ensure a more competitive unit.
New Zealand's whirlwind South American tour yielded just one win from six games but none of the defeats was by more than two goals. Trent says their opponents were "bigger, like men" and were also skilful and swift, both mentally and physically.
Most of the Junior All Whites are used to taking on older and stronger players, finishing among the top four in Auckland's reserve grade club competition played on Sundays.
And the Mt Albert Grammar 1st XI knocked Northern League premier division club Three Kings and third division champions Onehunga Mangere out of the Chatham Cup. Mt Albert Grammar enjoyed an outstanding year, winning the New Zealand secondary schools title and doing the Auckland league and cup double.
As well as playing on Saturdays and Sundays, the Junior All Whites train at Mt Albert Grammar four mornings a week, starting at 6.45am, and have started training after school since returning from South America.
Trent's father Alan has the unenviable job of driving him to the morning training sessions. He and mother Trisha will be looking forward to the day Daniel gets his driver's licence - "I haven't had time yet." His younger brothers are also involved in sport. Matthew is an 11th grade Counties Manukau representative, while Cameron used to play until going the way of many teenage soccer players, switching to rugby at Papatoetoe High.
A sixth former, Trent will return to Mt Albert Grammar next year, unless he attracts the attention of one of the many scouts expected here for the World Cup. Ultimately, he wants to play overseas as a professional.
This tournament is likely to unearth some of the future stars of the world's most popular sport. Uruguay could well have one, with 17-year-old Horacio Peralta having already played for his country at the highest level and heading off to Europe after this World Cup.
Among the players who have gone on to greater things are French World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit, highly-rated Argentinian Fernando Redondo and Manchester United's Australian goalkeeper Mark Bosnich.
From the Nigerian team which won the 1993 Under-17 World Cup are Nwankwo Kanu, who spearheaded his country's spectacular gold-medal triumph at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and is now starring at Arsenal with Petit, plus Celestine Babayaro.
African teams are again likely to feature prominently during the November tournament. Ghana have reached each of the last four finals and are part of a powerful Pool B with fellow confederation champions Spain, Mexico and Thailand.
A strong Group C features traditional heavyweights Germany and defending Under-17 champions Brazil.
New Zealand soccer supporters will be hoping the Junior All Whites can turn in respectable performances against the US, Uruguay and Poland, maybe even challenging for a place in the quarterfinals. Daniel Trent and his team mates will be doing their best to ensure local fans have something to smile about.
FIFA Under-17 World
Year Hosts Winners Runners-up
1985 China Nigeria West Germany
1987 Canada USSR Nigeria
1989 Scotland Saudi Arabia Scotland
1991 Italy Ghana Spain
1993 Japan Nigeria Ghana
1995 Ecuador Ghana Brazil
1997 Egypt Brazil Ghana