The New Zealand U-23 men have already had a near-perfect Pacific Games campaign after going through pool play unbeaten but midfielder Dane Schnell feels there is even more to come as they prepare to take on New Caledonia in a gold medal play-off on Saturday.
New Zealand are the only age-restricted side competing in the senior tournament and are using their time in Apia to prepare for September’s Olympic Games qualifiers. They have an average age of just 20 but have so far made light of their tender years against more experienced international opposition, conceding just one goal and scoring 20 en route to topping their group.
The most memorable result has been a 2-0 triumph over Papua New Guinea, for whom nine members of the starting line-up were part of a team that drew with the All Whites in the final of the 2016 OFC Nations Cup before being beaten on penalties.
New Caledonia are likely to provide an even bigger challenge but Schnell, who found the net in that Papua New Guinea victory and assumed the captain’s armband for the second half, sees no reason why New Zealand can’t earn a similar outcome.
“Any final is a big game and this is why we play football,” he says.
“The feeling is good in the camp and we’re all absolutely buzzing to have got this far. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us but I feel like we’ve made improvements in every game and we’re just hitting our stride now.”
After playing four games in just eight days, Des Buckingham’s side are enjoying the luxury of a four-day preparation for the gold medal match – which could prove crucial given the gruelling nature of the group stage in the energy-sapping Samoan climate.
“It was tough, there’s no getting away from that,” admits Schnell.
“But we got through that and now we have our reward. We had a day off after the last game and just relaxed by the beach in the shade, before having a light training yesterday and full training today. We’ve been able to get some time away from football and see a little bit of the island which is nice. We’re here to get the job done but it’s good for the mental state to see something a bit different.”
Schnell and his team mates have taken heart from their strength in adversity and he believes that is a central theme of their success so far.
“There’s always challenges that come from going away and the conditions aren’t exactly ideal but it’s just a matter of how adaptable you are. We were talking yesterday in a team meeting about how we’ve been able to overcome things we haven’t faced before,” he says.
“As a group, we’re so strong together and have all bought into the same idea. I think it stems from the coaching staff – nothing has phased them in the way they’ve gone about things and we’ve followed suit. All of us really fight and work for each other and I think our collective mentality is what has got us through.”
That same approach of handling anything that comes their way will need to be taken against New Caledonia as the Francophones have emerged from a tough group that also included the likes of fellow Oceania heavyweights Tahiti, Fiji and Solomon Islands.
Nicknamed ‘Les Cagous’, New Caledonia have no shortage of talent, including the likes of France-based pair César Zeoula and Jean-Philippe Saïko, as well as former Oceania Footballer of the Year Bertrand Kaï.
“We watched New Caledonia the other day and they’re a very good side with some really attacking forward players. They’ve got a lot of senior players who have played for their country for a long time,” Schnell says.
“Regardless of who you’re coming up against, it’s always going to be very tough and tight in a final. But we’ve had a couple of days for our bodies to recover and we’re looking strong.”
New Zealand U-23 vs New Caledonia
Pacific Games Gold Final
Saturday 20 July, 12.30pm (11.30am NZT)
J.S. Blatter Football Complex, Apia
Live on SKY Sport Pop-up 3