New Zealand 1, Portugal 2
Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, June 11 2015
Rounds of 16 have been a World Cup phenomenon for 29 years – since Mexico ‘86, which was also the occasion that launched the worldwide popularity of the Mexican wave! I’ll leave it for you to decide for yourself whether or not that tournament had a lot to answer for…
They are funny things though, rounds of 16. For a lot of teams, reaching the quarter finals is considered ‘par’ and making it any further than that is deemed ‘a good tournament’. This makes the round of 16 a pivotal point in any World Cup. A sort of border between success and failure.
For others still, the genuine minnows, the round of 16 is perhaps the ultimate goal.
In the past they have seemed to me to be kind of like the World Cup equivalent of getting taken to a buffet restaurant on a romantic date. It’s not the worst thing in the world. A least it’s better than getting taken to a food court (getting knocked out in the group stage) or McDonalds (not even getting through the qualifiers). You will probably stick the evening out, but if this is as good as it gets your enthusiasm for going out with this person again is in all likelihood lukewarm at best. Especially when, like me, you are used to supporting countries that regularly take you to Michelin Star restaurants!
On the other hand, as an Italy fan, I might be upset at my team getting knocked out at any point of a World Cup – even if it’s losing the final – but that doesn’t mean the round of 16 can’t and/or hasn’t provided special memories both good and bad.
Any list of my most memorable round of 16 games would have to include both beating Australia in 2006 (oh, the deliciousness… They thought they had us. Ooops! No you don’t. Poor diddums…) and losing to South Korea courtesy of the worst refereeing display in the history of World Cups in 2002.
Round of 16 defeats can often be particularly cruel ways to exit a tournament. Making it out of your group was a great relief, but then when you get knocked out in the first knockout game, and find yourself deflated again so quickly after the false security of that post group stage relief – that particular brand of pain is especially tough to handle. Perhaps it would have been better to get it over with sooner!
The reality is though, at this Under 20 World Cup, New Zealand fell into that minnow category I mentioned above, especially considering that our win last Friday was our first ever at this level in the men’s game. That was our final really. We might have been sent packing from our own tournament last night, but that’s life when you’re New Zealand and you’re playing Portugal at football. It’s simply the natural order of things. For now.
For me, in spite of the loss, this was a World Cup knockout match that featured my home country. And one that took place in the town I grew up in to boot! But of course, what made last night really, really great was that beautiful time, for a while there in the second half, when it looked like the impossible dream might just have been possible.
Going into this tournament I wasn’t sure if I could particularly enjoy a World Cup that Italy is not participating in. What I have learned is that you don’t need to support a country with a chance of winning a World Cup to get a lot of pleasure out of it.
I will never look at rounds of 16 in quite the same way again!
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.