New Zealand have bowed out of the FIFA U-17 World Cup after a 3-1 loss to African champions Mali but coach Danny Hay is extremely proud of his players’ efforts and feels there are many positives to reflect on from the campaign.
“We were in a very, very tough group and were more than aware of that,” he said.
“We played against three very good sides and our attitude, application and the quality of football was at times I think better than it ever has been from a New Zealand U-17 side. I can’t fault us, we were just up against some very good teams.”
Hay’s side went into the match at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi knowing exactly what was required to give themselves any chance of progressing past the group stages. After a 1-1 draw with Turkey and 4-2 loss to Paraguay in their first two matches, nothing less than a win would do but that was always going to be easier said than done against a side of Mali’s standing.
Hay at least had a full complement to pick from and the services of one of his key players as captain Max Mata returned from suspension. His presence was clearly missed in the Paraguay reversal – in which New Zealand led 2-1 but couldn’t hang on – and he was joined by several other newcomers to the line-up as goalkeeper Zac Jones, Liam Moore and Matthew Palmer all received their first starts.
Despite the new faces, the encounter began in eerily similar circumstances to the previous two games as New Zealand yet again found themselves a goal behind early on. It was the Oceania champions that actually had the first chance to score in just the third minute though when Elijah Just – who has impressed hugely in this tournament – played in Mata with an excellent through ball but the returning skipper couldn’t beat Mali goalkeeper Youssouf Koita with his low effort.
Koita’s Kiwi counterpart was then tested on a couple of occasions but Jones was equal to both Mali strikes and, although the Africans were dominating the possession stakes, New Zealand appeared to be dealing well with their attacking threat.
That changed in stunning fashion in the 18th minute though, a ball being laid off into the path of Salam Jiddou for him to score one of the goals of the tournament so far by rifling a strike into the top corner from well outside the box.
With New Zealand clearly set up to try to frustrate Africa’s finest, going behind so early was a hammer blow. They almost responded immediately though when Leon van den Hoven picked out Mata with a trademark free kick but he couldn’t find a team mate with his header across goal.
Mali continued to enjoy more of the ball, leaving the Kiwis to focus on keeping their shape and threatening mainly from set pieces. One of these created a half opportunity in the 25th minute when Just controlled a flicked on throw in and shot on the turn but his attempt was blocked.
The same player was presented with another opportunity in similar fashion five minutes before half time, Mata flicking on a Liberto Cacace throw for Just to head wide at the near post. At the other end, Mali very nearly had a second just moments before the break when Lassana Ndiaye got in behind and struck the far upright with a powerful low shot.
That narrow miss meant New Zealand were still very much in the game at just 1-0 down and Hay made a change at half-time as he searched for the equaliser, Charles Spragg coming on for Palmer. But when another goal did finally arrive it went the way of Mali and it was again straight from the top drawer, Djemoussa Traore throwing a couple of dummies on the edge of the box before curling an unstoppable effort inside the far post in the 51st minute.
That goal left New Zealand facing an exit from the tournament but Spragg did manage to give them a ray of hope by doing exactly what he was brought on to do with just under 20 minutes remaining. Danger man Just swung in a perfectly-placed cross from near the byline on the left that dropped straight into the path of Spragg, who calmly headed in his first goal of the tournament at close range.
After a final drinks break in the stifling New Delhi heat, Hay’s side now had quarter of an hour to save themselves but struggled to create chances and Jones was the busier of the goalkeepers, making several fine saves to keep his side in the contest.
But Mali did eventually secure the points in the 82nd minute when Lassana Ndiaye prodded home to make sure his side would progress from Group B with winners Paraguay and end New Zealand’s involvement.
“Mali are African champions for a reason and came into the tournament as one of the favourites,” Hay said. “You can see the quality there and they’re going to go a long way because they’re a very good side.”