New Zealand bowed out of the Fifa Under-20 World Cup in the cruellest possible manner yesterday, losing a thrilling round of 16 clash against Colombia on penalties.
Des Buckingham's side impressed in an end-to-end encounter and could have won on several occasions but it was left to the lottery of a penalty shootout to separate the teams after a 1-1 draw.
New Zealand goalkeeper Michael Woud appeared to have made a hero of himself by saving Colombia's first two spot kicks and his country had one foot in the quarter-finals when he made yet another block to complete his hat-trick. But that third save was ruled out by the officials and Colombia scored from the retake, hauling themselves back into the shootout before prevailing 5-4.
Buckingham was proud of his side's performance against a team packed with top-tier talent.
"The way they've just played, they've shown that New Zealand players can not only compete but can also win on the world stage," said Buckingham.
"They've shown that in the group games, and I thought the way they played was fantastic. I'm so proud of what we've achieved, individually and collectively, and how we've represented the country."
Colombia took an early lead against the run of play when Andres Reyes glanced a 10th-minute header inside the far post from a free kick.
New Zealand equalised in the 35th minute, Liberato Cacace powered a low ball into the box for Elijah Just to expertly turn home.
New Zealand's best chance of taking the lead arrived just past the hour when Just got on the end of a lofted pass from Singh and lifted the ball over goalkeeper Kevin Mier but a covering defender cleared the shot.
Extra-time brought more drama as both teams had chances to win and New Zealand were indebted to Woud, who pulled off an exceptional save from one of the last kicks of the game to keep the scores level.
That meant the tie would be decided from the penalty spot and substitute Matt Conroy was the unlucky one, seeing his decisive effort saved for Colombia to finally triumph after Woud's double-save heroics.
Buckingham had words of comfort for Conroy and the rest of his crushed squad as they look to bounce back from the nature of their World Cup elimination.
"There's going to be some devastated players here but they will reflect upon the last four or five weeks and realise the impact this has hopefully had on football in New Zealand," he said. "We've come here and outplayed teams. We have good players and you've seen that again [against Colombia]. It's a horrible way to exit the tournament, especially when you're that close to creating history, but I couldn't be prouder of every single one of them."