New Zealand's Oly-Whites lose to Belarus
New Zealand football teams have played worse, much worse, in recent years and got better results than the Oly-Whites in their 1-0 loss to Belarus at the City of Coventry Stadium today.
New Zealand dominated large parts of their Olympic Games opener, mixing composure on the ball with timely runs, good combinations and a skill level befitting a team which has nine of its starting 11 capped at senior All Whites level.
They played football with a freedom and comfort rarely seen at international level, but for all their efforts they, like plenty of Kiwi teams before them, failed to capitalise.
And they paid the ultimate price, on a warm summer's evening in West Midlands, the result going a long way to ending their quarterfinal hopes before the Games have officially begun.
"Obviously disappointed with the result, but I was happy with the way we played," coach Neil Emblen said.
"I thought we were brave in possession, we created chances, but we couldn't get that goal."
He said he couldn't have asked for anything more, aside from a goal or two of course.
"They showed the Kiwi spirit and kept going until the end. They were diving in the way of shots and last-ditch tackles. Everything was there.
"Ever since I got the job I said we must keep that. We want to become a better technical nation and braver on the ball and they are showing those signs but remaining with the identity they have as New Zealanders .
"I'm happy with the way they have gone. The result, when your game plan goes well and you don't get the result, that's sickening. We have to just dust ourselves off and get ready for Egypt."
Spare a thought for 21-year-old goalkeeper Michael O'Keefe. He plays the most lonely position on a football field and he will be feeling sick today.
In the side only because No 1 stopper Jake Gleeson was ruled out with a groin injury, despite being expected to play, O'Keefe's blunder in first half stoppage time was the difference on the scoresheet.
He horribly misjudged a left-wing corner and missed it completely, leaving midfielder Dmitry Baga free at the back post to nod the ball in, almost in disbelief at his great fortune.
He made two wonderful late saves to deny a second goal, as Belarus finished with a final flurry, but it's not those which will undoubtedly affect his sleep tonight.
"That goal before halftime, young Michael (O'Keefe) has held his hand up for. It wasn't a goal they really created, it was one we've given away," Emblen said.
''He's obviously made one mistake but apart from that he's had a pretty good performance and made some good saves. He's the type of lad who deosn't get flustered and he showed plenty of courage in the second half and pulled off some fantastic saves.
"He's probably semi-pleased apart from that one mistake. It's a cruel game. People will talk about that unfortunately.
"All of a sudden the game changed, Belarus had something to hold onto, and they were a bit better in the second half."
Belarus had only fashioned a couple of half chances on the break and were generally outplayed, but it only took one moment and they seized it. New Zealand had their moments, but couldn't respond, even with the majority of the mainly neutral 14,500-strong crowd willing them on.
All Whites striker Chris Wood, a constant factor in the match, particularly in his combination with Shane Smeltz, had the best opportunities in each half, but his header fell straight into goalkeeper Aleksandr Gutor's hands, and he snatched at a shot when one-on-one.
There was plenty of niggle. Wood and fellow striker Shane Smeltz had a running battle with Gutor who was fiesty, bordering on angry. But he would have the final say.
New Zealand will feel aggrieved at the refereeing of Bakary Gassama, of Gambia, who let the physical Belarussians get away with too many fouls. But it didn't cost them the match.
There will be positives, as teams always like to focus on. New Zealand were well organised, not surprisingly well led by Ryan Nelsen, and able to attack from midfield and out wide, not something you can always say about Kiwi teams.
Marco Rojas and Kosta Barbarouses showed the benefits of sustained exposure at top level but, at this level, the positives ultimately count for nought.
Neil Emblen's side must now pick themselves up and beat Egypt on Monday morning (NZT), and hope Brazil – 3-2 winners over Egypt today - can hammer Belarus, to have any chance of progressing to the quarterfinals.