• New Zealand captain Chris Wood in career-best form
  • The All Whites will be seeking their first win at a FIFA Confederations Cup next month in Russia
  • Wood says ‘backing and belief’ has been the catalyst for his prolific goalscoring at club level 

When New Zealand last featured at a major tournament, Chris Wood was a fresh-faced 18-year-old. That was at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, where the forward started on the bench in all three matches. However, fast forward to the present day and Wood will head to next month’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia not only enjoying some remarkable career-best form, but captaining his country.

New Zealand have historically struggled to score goals at the top echelon of international football, but in Wood they have someone in rare goalscoring shape. The towering forward netted 30 goals in all competitions for Leeds United during the recently completed season to claim the club’s player of the year award, and be named in the second-tier competition’s team of the year.

New Zealand will open the Confederations Cup with a glamour match-up against the hosts, before further outings against CONCACAF kings Mexico and European champions Portugal. Russia 2017 will present the All Whites with an opportunity to improve on their modest Confederations Cup record, which has yielded just two goals and one point from nine outings at the Tournament of Champions.

This time, unlike in previous appearances in 1999, 2003 and 2009, New Zealand boast considerable creative options. Wide attackers Marco Rojas and Kosta Barbarouses offer both pace and x-factor, while there is also inspiration from other sources such as rising star Ryan Thomas and indefatigable midfielder Michael McGlinchey.

And it is Wood who could be the major beneficiary of his creative team-mates, especially if he can take momentum from the recent season all the way to Russia. Wood was also top-scorer for Leeds in 2015/16, but that campaign concluded with a relatively modest haul of 13 goals.

So why the dramatic improvement in form? “I can’t put it down to one thing,” Wood told FIFA.com. “But I have had a team and manager [at Leeds] that has backed me throughout the whole season, and people underestimate the value of having a manager that backs you and has belief in you.”

Pride in armband
Wood has captained New Zealand in several matches during ongoing World Cup qualifying, a campaign which could result in a return to Russia in 12 months time. Just this week, West Ham United-based New Zealand captain Winston Reid was confirmed to miss the Confederations Cup through injury leaving Wood as skipper, adding further icing to an already stellar season.

“It is a huge and proud moment every single time,” Wood said about captaining his country. “Even if Winston was [available], I would still take responsibility and act the same way. You can’t leave it all to one player, and they don’t leave it all to me. There are huge leaders in this team and we all do it together.”

Equally, New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson strongly backs the Leeds man. “It [Wood’s success] is not by chance, it comes down to his mentality and how hard he works,” said Hudson. “He is such an asset to the national team. I think Woodsy, among a few others in this squad, can be superstars on the international stage this year because they now have earned the platform to do that.”

Hudson has brought about generational change in the New Zealand squad, which has moved on from Ricki Herbert’s nine-year tenure. Indeed, Wood is just one of a handful of survivors from New Zealand’s last Confederations Cup squad eight years ago. On that occasion, a raw-boned 17-year-old Wood made a 15-minute cameo off the bench against South Africa, in a match that already seemed lost by the time he entered the fray.

Russia 2017, however, is set to be a completely difference experience for a player at the peak of his powers.