Charles Spragg has stood out for New Zealand in their campaign to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, sitting top of the scoring table and securing the side’s victory against Solomon Islands in the OFC U-17 Championship in Tahiti, but it’s taken a great amount of commitment to get to where he is today.
“My love for football all started because of my older brother and my dad. My brother Thomas played football and my dad always kept a ball at my feet, I was kicking a ball around at age three,” he said.
Spragg joined Papakura City Football Club at age four and spent the majority of his childhood at the South Auckland club, alongside fellow U-17 international Max Mata, under coaches Liam Higgins and Chris Turner.
“I had influential coaches in Liam and Chris. Chris was an All White so he was really influential in my career, and he still is today,” he said.
“We had a good youth team, we won 9th grade nationals, we always competed at the top and we always had lots of fun.”
Spragg’s natural talent and determination to develop opened a doorway to the 2014 Manchester United Premier Nike Cup through Waitakere United Football Club, and the young striker was fully sold on a life of football after his early taste at the international level when he travelled to Manchester with the West Auckland club.
“I moved on to Waitakere and we were lucky enough to actually go to Manchester for the Nike Cup which was very special. It’s something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life,” he said.
“I was obviously nervous, its nerve-racking being on the global stage versing teams like Chelsea, AS Roma – massive clubs. We were from Waitakere and were playing billion dollar clubs.
“It was crazy but at the same time we were excited to see what the league was like and to push ourselves against the best. It was very cool.”
After his successful stint with Waitakere United, Spragg spent time with Onehunga Sport before making the move to Western Springs Football Club in 2016, where he enjoyed an inspiring season under former All Whites coach Neil Emblen.
“My time at Western Springs has been really good. We’ve got Neil Emblen there who’s a great coach so hopefully I’ll be able to play for the first team and further develop my football from there.”
Despite the 16-year-old’s extensive football resume, nothing could have prepared him for the intensity he encountered in the New Zealand U-17 national team.
“Intensity in the U-17s is obviously very high, it’s international football, and we replicate that intensity because our coaches – Danny Hay, Chris Zoricich, Jason Batty – they’ve all been there and they all know what the standards are like so they push those standards every training,” he said.
“Mentally, you’ve got to be switched on all the time and, physically, it is demanding but it’s very beneficial.”
The high intensity training paid off for Spragg throughout the U-17 Championship, giving the striker the edge to contribute six goals to help New Zealand qualify for the World Cup. When the final whistle blew in their 2-1 semi-final win against Papua New Guinea, Spragg struggled to describe the intense feeling of pride and excitement running through him.
“The emotion was just crazy. Everything, training for it, all the sacrifices, its massive but it is worth it in the end and the emotions of joy and excitement. Everyone was just buzzing, it was an insane feeling.”
With only one match to go, Spragg is set on continuing New Zealand’s winning streak in their final against New Caledonia before turning his focus to India.
“I’m looking forward to it. We’re already prepared and focused. We want to win. We want to get that first spot and we want to bring home the trophy.”
After his first experience wearing the silver fern, Spragg had some advice to pass on to aspiring footballers about handling the heat of international football.
“Pressure is always a good chance to shine. You’ve just got to focus on your job, don’t let the pressure build up and just focus on what you can do, and hopefully things will take care of itself.”