It may still be one game away from providing the chance to lift the trophy but New Zealand’s semi-final against New Caledonia at the OFC U-19 Championship tomorrow afternoon is very much their most important match of the tournament.
While captain Joe Bell and his team mates would relish going on to earn the mantle of Oceania champions, two spots at the FIFA U-20 World Cup are up for grabs in Tahiti, meaning the semi-finals are set to provide the real winner-takes-all moments.
“This is the big one because it’s the one that will get us to Poland,” Bell said.
“There’s obviously a lot riding on this game so it’s important that we’re very focused on it. The final is obviously important as well because we want to win the tournament but, right now, everyone is very focused on this semi-final because we know how important it is.”
The defending champions will go in as favourites against their Francophone opponents, having negotiated pool play to finish top of Group A. New Zealand’s most difficult match so far has been their first, which brought a hard-fought 2-1 win over hosts Tahiti. They went on to score 18 goals and concede none over the remaining two group games and Bell is pleased with how the squad has been progressing.
“I’ve been really impressed with the boys, we’ve got a really good family feel going on in the team right now. I think that’s very important when you’re coming over to the islands because sometimes the situation can get tough,” he said.
“The first game against Tahiti was tough so I was really glad we came away with the three points. Then in the second game against Tonga we were able to open our legs up a little bit and that showed on the scoreboard. A lot of the boys got a chance to score or assist and I think that gave us a lot of confidence going into PNG. I didn’t play in that one but the boys did well so overall the tournament has been great for the team.”
Despite the smooth sailing so far, Bell is not getting carried away and is wary of the threat posed by New Caledonia.
“They’re definitely a very talented side. They like to play quite direct which is a dynamic we’re going to have to deal with,” he said.
“And they’re very fast on the counter-attack so it’s going to require us to be focused and well set-up defensively to make sure we don’t concede early and then keep a clean sheet for the rest of the game. They have a few players that stand out but I think we’re ready for what they’re going to bring.”
Coach Des Buckingham has reported a clean bill of health right throughout his squad and, fresh from his rest in the final group game, Bell is likely to be a key figure. He has led by example, particularly when scoring a hat-trick against Tonga, but says the responsibility of captaining the team is not much of a burden to bear.
“It’s obviously very special for me and I’m very honoured to do it,” he says.
“But we’ve got a lot of natural leaders in the team so it’s easy for me to wear the arm band because the team carries itself very professionally.”
Bell and many other members of the squad have already graced the global stage by appearing in at least one previous World Cup – the midfielder has represented his country at both the U-17 and U-20 events – and are desperate to return.
“The World Cup is the biggest stage of all for us young players, it gives us the chance to show what we have to the world and compete against some of the best players in our age group. I think that’s something everyone wants to experience so it makes winning this semi-final very important.”