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Panda Cup offers World Cup dry run

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

As they build towards the FIFA U-17 World Cup later this year in Brazil, coach Jose Figueira and his New Zealand team are searching for any experiences that may replicate what they will be faced with and appear to have found just that in Chengdu, China.

Figueira has taken his young charges to the world’s most populous country to take part in the Panda Cup and has been impressed with what he’s found so far.

"Everything is fantastic and it’s clear there’s going to be a lot of value for us in attending this tournament," he says.

"We were really honoured to be invited and you could see from the minute we’ve arrived that there’s a sense of it almost being like a mini-World Cup. You can see the organisation and effort that’s gone into it and that’s had a big impact on the look and feel of the tournament," he adds.

"The way they’ve dressed up the tournament, both on and off the pitch, has really made it feel like we’re at a World Cup. So it really couldn’t be better preparation for us in terms of what the boys are going to come up against and the feelings they’re going to have in that environment when we get to Brazil."

Also likely to be of World Cup standard is the quality of opposition New Zealand will face. The Oceania champions are set to kick off their campaign late tonight (NZT) against the hosts before going on to meet Korea Republic and Thailand.

Playing three games in such a short space of time replicates the group stages of a World Cup and it’s likely to be just as tough as the going in Brazil.

All three of New Zealand’s opponents have an age advantage as they are each U-18 teams who are using the tournament as the first steps on their journey to qualify for the next FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Figueira is relishing the challenge though and is calling on his players to meet it head on.

"We want to show our personality on the pitch," he says. "We’re expecting really tough tests but we want to come here with no fear."

With the Panda Cup already garnering nationwide interest, a sizeable crowd in the thousands is expected for New Zealand’s meeting with China tonight at the Chengdu Shuangliu Sports Centre.

That will provide another element to contend with while Figueira is expecting China to be a slick outfit.

"The first game is always difficult and we don’t have any prior knowledge of this older age group of theirs," he says.

"But we’ve been crossing paths at the training facility with the other teams and we expect China to be a very technical team. They will be well drilled and organised and are sure to have some real individual flair," he adds.

"The message to the boys has been that we want to play the way we want to. If we can do that, work hard and stick together then there’s no reason why we can’t get some good results."

New Zealand U-17 squad for Panda Cup

Alexander Paulsen (Capital Football, Lower Hutt City, Scots College)

Luca Taylor (Northern Football, Birkenhead United, Mt Albert Grammar School)

Max Drake (Capital Football, Lower Hutt City, Westlake Boys High School)

Kris Naicker (Capital Football, Lower Hutt City, Scots College)

Nathan Lobo (Northern Football, Birkenhead United, Liston College)

Nicholas Milicich (Northern Football, Birkenhead United, St Peter’s College)

Finn O’Connor (Capital Football, Lower Hutt City, Scots College)

Robert Sabo (Capital Football, Western Suburbs, Tawa College)

Jackson Simpkin (Brisbane City)

Sean Bright (Capital Football, Western Suburbs, Tawa College)

Henry Hamilton (Capital Football, Lower Hutt City, Wellington College)

Marko Stamenic (Capital Football, Western Suburbs, St Patrick’s College Silverstream)

Campbell Strong (Auckland Football, Eastern Suburbs, Sacred Heart College)

Matthew Garbett (Capital Football, Western Suburbs, Wellington College)

Keegan Jelacic (Queensland Lions)

Jesse Randall (Capital Football, North Wellington, Rongotai College)

Oskar van Hattum (Capital Football, Lower Hutt City, NZ Institute of Sport)

Bradley Wilson (Auckland Football, Western Springs, St Peter’s College)

Panda Cup schedule

Saturday 25 May

China vs New Zealand, 7pm (11pm NZT)

Monday 27 May

New Zealand vs Korea Republic, 3pm (7pm NZT)

Wednesday 29 May

New Zealand vs Thailand, 3pm (7pm NZT)

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