Just one short month now stands between New Zealand and the greatest football event the country has ever seen. The proximity of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, which has previously unveiled the likes of Maradona and Messi to a global audience, makes it all the more tantalising for Kiwis who have long championed the beautiful game.
Several of the most high-profile are proudly serving as official tournament ambassadors, and all can hardly wait for the action to begin. According to Wynton Rufer, Oceania’s Player of the Century, the competition represents a chance that simply must be grasped.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity to be hosting a tournament like this,” said the former All Whites and Werder Bremen star , who helped lead New Zealand to their first FIFA World Cup™ in 1982. “The World Cup in South Africa definitely lifted the game to another level in New Zealand and since then we’ve had Wellington Phoenix and Auckland City doing well. The women’s side are top 20 in the world too, so this should help us build on what’s already been achieved.
“When I was asked to become an ambassador, I couldn’t say no. It was because of FIFA, and the U-17 World Cup being held here in 1999, that I came back to New Zealand. You want to be involved in these kind of events. You only need to look at all the fantastic teams coming – plus the big stars who’ve played in this before – to see that there’s a competition with incredible tradition coming to these shores.”
Ivan Vicelich knows better than most how special these tournaments can be. The 38-year-old is a veteran of no fewer than nine global finals, and his experiences at South Africa 2010, three FIFA Confederations Cups and five FIFA Club World Cups leave him in no doubt of the scale of this upcoming event.
“It’s absolutely huge,” said Vicelich, winner of the adidas Bronze Ball at the latest Club World Cup. “I heard that there will be 117 million people watching the games on TV, and that tells you all you need to know. I’m sure New Zealand is going to put on a great tournament. The preparation from FIFA has been massive – I’ve seen it first-hand in Auckland in this ambassador’s role – and these are exciting times for the country. The next Messi is likely to be playing in this tournament, so it’s a great chance for people to come out and watch a few future superstars.”
You only need to look at all the fantastic teams coming – plus the big stars who’ve played in this before – to see that there’s a competition with incredible tradition coming to these shores.
As a former team-mate of David Beckham’s at Los Angeles Galaxy, Andy Boyens knows all about superstars. And the big defender, who also turned out for Chivas USA and New York Red Bulls, believes his fellow countrymen have little concept of the standard of football that awaits them. “I think the quality is going to be on a different level to anything New Zealand has seen before,” he said. “People won’t be able to appreciate the scale of it all – not just the quality on the field but the fanaticism off it – until it finally gets underway.”
Like Boyens, Mark Paston’sfirst experience of a FIFA tournament was as a spectator at the 1999 U-17 World Cup. The Wellington Phoenix keeper, who kept goal for the All Whites at South Africa 2010, has fond memories of that well-attended event and is hopeful of the U-20 equivalent making an even bigger splash.
“The U-17s was fantastic and this should be every bit as good if not better,” said Paston. “It's another sign of where this country is going in terms of football. When I started, New Zealand only had amateur players and look at where we are now. This can be the next step forward. Hopefully we'll get people along to watch the U-20 games who haven't been to football before and get them hooked."
The tournament’s legacy is also uppermost in the thoughts ofBen Sigmund, Paston’s team-mate with both club and country. “My big hope is that it inspires kids to stay in the game,” said the centre-half, who starred at the U-17 event in 1999. “We have a real problem in New Zealand keeping kids in football when they go up to high school and hopefully this can help change that."
Aaron Scott, a veteran of New Zealand’s campaigns at the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Confederations Cup, believes the youthful nature of the participants will help achieve Sigmund’s goal. “The best thing about players at U-20 level is that they don’t play with the same ingrained caution and instinct to defend and be structured - you still have that impetuousness of youth,” said the 28-year-old. “I think there’s going to be plenty of flair and attacking play on show.”
The importance of putting on a show is of particular importance toMike McGarry, who as well as being a regional ambassador and 54-times-capped international, has taken on the role of general manager at the southernmost of the competition’s seven venues, Dunedin.
"The ticket pricing has been designed to make it as easy as possible for families to go along,” he explained. “Your hope is that the young kids will see good football, fair football, and the best teams rising to the top. And hopefully New Zealand will be one of those teams!"