The New Zealand U-20s have bowed out of the FIFA U-20 World Cup but not without their heads held high after eventually losing a thrilling Round of 16 clash against Colombia in the cruellest possible manner this morning (NZT).
Des Buckingham’s side more than played their part in an end-to-end encounter and could well have won the match on several occasions but Colombia could arguably say the same and it was left to the lottery of a penalty shoot-out to finally separate the teams after a 1-1 draw.
New Zealand goalkeeper Michael Woud appeared to have made a hero of himself by saving Colombia’s first two spot kicks and his country had one foot in the quarter-finals when he made yet another block to complete his hat-trick. But that third save was then ruled out by the officials and Colombia netted from the retake, hauling themselves back into the shoot-out before prevailing 5-4.
While hugely disappointed to be leaving Poland in such heart-breaking fashion, Buckingham had nothing but praise for his charges, who were again exceptional on the biggest stage of all.
“The way they’ve just played, they’ve shown that New Zealand players can not only compete but can also win on the world stage,” he said.
“They’ve shown that in the group games and I thought the way they played was fantastic. I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved, individually and collectively, and how we’ve represented the country.”
As in all three of their previous fixtures, New Zealand looked to take the game to their opposition and were the better side in the opening exchanges. But Colombia took an early lead against the run of play when Andres Reyes glanced a header inside the far post from a free kick.
The Oceania champions responded well to that setback and their characteristically sharp interplay teed up Callum McCowatt on several occasions but a combination of good defending and misfortune denied the ISPS Handa Premiership golden boot winner from striking the equaliser.
New Zealand were deservedly back on level terms by the break though, Liberato Cacace driving a low ball into the box for Elijah Just to turn home and set up an engaging second half that proved nerve-wracking for supporters of both sides.
With Sarpreet Singh pulling the strings in midfield and McCowatt continuing to be a threat, New Zealand’s best chance of taking the lead arrived just past the hour. Just got on the end of a lofted pass from Singh and lifted the ball over goalkeeper Kevin Mier but a covering defender scrambled back to clear.
Extra-time brought more drama as both teams had chances to win it and New Zealand were indebted to Woud, who pulled off an exceptional save from one of the last kicks of the game to keep the scores level.
That meant the tie would be decided from the penalty spot and substitute Matt Conroy was the unlucky one, seeing his decisive effort saved for Colombia to finally triumph after Woud’s double-save heroics.
Buckingham had some words of comfort for Conroy and the rest of his crest-fallen players as they look to bounce back from the crushing nature of their World Cup elimination.
“There’s going to be some devastated players here but they will reflect upon the last four or five weeks and realise the impact this has hopefully had on football in New Zealand,” he said.
“We’ve come here and outplayed teams. We have good players and you’ve seen that again tonight. It’s a horrible way to exit the tournament, especially when you’re that close to creating history, but I couldn’t be prouder of every single one of them.”