The New Zealand U-20 men will meet Colombia in the Round of 16 at the FIFA U-20 World Cup after signing off on pool play with a 2-0 defeat to Uruguay in Poland this morning (NZT).
Going into the final Group C clash, history was beckoning for New Zealand as no team from these shores had ever progressed to the knockout stages of a FIFA tournament in pole position.
Des Buckingham’s side had put themselves on the verge of finishing top with back-to-back wins – the first time that had been achieved by a Kiwi side at an U-20 World Cup – but couldn’t complete the job against the classy South Americans.
With their respective passages to the Round of 16 already secured, both sides took the opportunity to freshen their starting line-ups as Buckingham made nine changes, only the centre back pairing of Nando Pijnaker and George Stanger keeping their places.
One of the players scheduled for a rest was captain Joe Bell but he was brought into the action much sooner than intended as Trevor Zwetsloot was forced off early in heart-breaking fashion with an injury. That made it a disrupted start for New Zealand and Uruguay took full advantage by dominating the opening exchanges.
They shaded the possession stakes and enjoyed the better of the openings before taking the lead in the 40th minute, Darwin Nunez firing in at the near post as New Zealand conceded their first goal of the tournament.
Goalkeeper Cameron Brown was one of the many players brought into the side and provided a safe pair of hands throughout, making several saves before finally being beaten with one of the last kicks of the game. With New Zealand pressing forward to find an equaliser, Uruguay broke on the counter for Brian Rodriguez to slot home and ensure first place in the group for his team.
It was cruel on the Kiwis, who had been enjoying one of their best periods of the match and very nearly got themselves on level terms just a few moments earlier. Bell played a sharp one-two with Max Mata – making his return after serving a two-match suspension – but then rolled his effort agonisingly wide of the far post.
The same pair then combined again deep into stoppage time as Mata, who had assumed the captain’s armband from Bell for this match, teed up the tireless midfielder on the edge of the box but his effort was blocked as New Zealand’s hopes of finishing top appeared to fade away.
They were most certainly extinguished just seconds later as Uruguay added their second for a final scoreline that was perhaps flattering on the South Americans.
Prior to the late drama, New Zealand had also exerted a spell of pressure midway through the second half, Uruguay having to survive a couple of threatening moments. First, a Dane Schnell cross was spilled by the goalkeeper but the loose ball was cleared before a lurking Mata could reach it and Matt Conroy then headed wide from a well-placed Sarpreet Singh free kick.
The Oceania champions will aim to make the most of such situations in taking on another South American opponent in the Round of 16 on Monday morning at 6.30am (NZT).
Colombia have a similar record to New Zealand after finishing second in Group A with two wins and a loss.
“It was disappointing not to get the win but the boys have done extremely well and I’m very proud of them,” Bell said.
“We’re the first New Zealand team to win two games at this World Cup and I think we put a great shift in today. It was unlucky but that’s football sometimes,” he added.
“We have to move on now and obviously the next game is extremely important for us so we’re going to be fully-focused on that. We’ll prepare and make sure we recover well and can go into that fully fit.”