All Whites defender Ben Sigmund appreciates more than most how a junior World Cup tournament can be a springboard to a professional football career.
The Wellington Phoenix favourite was back in his Christchurch hometown yesterday with the Fifa under-20 World Cup trophy as an ambassador for the 2015 tournament to be staged in New Zealand.
Sigmund, who showed off the trophy at the Re:Start mall yesterday afternoon and at community football festival at Cuthberts Green in Wainoni, said the tournament was Fifa's "second biggest" event, behind the senior World Cup finals.
"I think we did a good job hosting the under-17 girls and boys World Cups, it's so exciting for this country to have a big tournament like this.
"Soccer's growing in the country. Every year there's some exciting players, I think it will stem from there with the next generation coming through. Hopefully we can keep growing in football."
Sigmund got his first international football break in 1997 when his New Zealand team upset Australia to make the under-17 World Cup finals. His Christchurch Boys' High School classmate Blair Scadden scored the winning goal in the Oceania qualifying group final at Christchurch's QE II Stadium.
But Sigmund said the 2015 New Zealand under-20 team would be better prepared than his under-17 group, who suffered three heavy defeats in Egypt. "We were the first New Zealand age-group team to qualify for a World Cup. I think we were so underprepared for it, we didn't really know what to expect.
"Now New Zealanders know what to expect. We're a lot more professional and we understand what we need to do to be competitive. I'm looking forward to seeing the New Zealand team be successful.
"It's exciting, when I look at playing in that tournament in ‘97, to see how far football's come in this country."
Sigmund said world football superstar Lionel Messi once played for Argentina at an under-20 World Cup. All Whites great Steve Sumner told the Re:Start mall crowd that the New Zealand sporting public were in for treat. He recalled how the early games at the 1999 under-17 boys' World Cup tournament in New Zealand were played before small crowds, of 5000 to 7000. "But, at the final between Brazil and Australia [at North Harbour Stadium], I remember seeing the full house sign out 20 minutes before kickoff."
- The Press
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