Ahead of the All Whites' matches with Curacao and Bahrain next week, Michael Burgess catches up with fullback Liberato Cacace, the first Kiwi to play in Belgium's top division.
As the club doctors examined him, Liberato Cacace knew he had broken his nose.
He also knew, despite the pain, that he had to go back on for the second half.
It was 25th October 2020, and the All Whites fullback was playing his fourth game for Sint-Truiden VV, in Belgium's top tier, after his move from the Wellington Phoenix two months earlier.
Sint-Truiden had been winless in their first six games and were languishing in 17th spot as they faced Standard Liege, one of Belgium's most successful teams.
But they went ahead in the 37th minute, before Cacace's painful clash with an opposition player just before halftime.
"We kind of collided, I didn't expect him to make a sudden, complete stop," Cacace tells the Herald. "We both ran straight into each other; he was [taller] so [my] nose went into his cheekbone. The next thing I knew I was on the ground with a broken nose and blood coming out.
"[But] I still played the second half," adds Cacace. "They stuck two cotton buds up my nose to stop the bleeding and I played the rest of the game on adrenalin; It was very painful [but] you gotta do what you gotta do to win the game."
That episode has epitomised Cacace's time in Belgium; things haven't always gone to plan, but the Island Bay United product has found a way to thrive.
"I'm a pretty strong-minded character," says Cacace. "I let things slide pretty quickly which I think is a gift for me in the career that I pursue. If I have bad things happen I quickly put it aside and move on; it's a new day, new game.
"My parents used to tell me, no point dwelling on things. Mum always used to say; 'do your best and God will do the rest' so I kind of stick by that."
Cacace made his debut for Sint-Truiden just over a year ago.
During that time the club have had three head coaches, with the Kiwi needing to impress each new man.
There was a fraught relegation battle last season, with a late rally preserving the Canaries' top flight status.
This season Cacace was benched for the first time in three and a half years, and also utilised in an unfamiliar right sided position.
Belgium is a football hub. Their national team was ranked No 1 by Fifa last year and the Belgian Pro League is regarded among the top 10 in Europe, with Club Brugge, Antwerp, Anderlecht and Standard Liege regularly featuring in continental competitions.
It's a few rungs up from the A-League but Cacace has started 34 out of 36 possible games, and among New Zealanders only Chris Wood (Burnley) and Ryan Thomas (PSV Eindhoven) are playing at a higher level.
"He is a bit of a pioneer, in terms of what he is doing," says All Whites coach Danny Hay. "Belgium is not a place that New Zealanders historically have gone. The fact that he is hopefully creating a pathway for future Kiwi players shows his character.
"He could have easily stayed in the A-League and been very comfortable, as you see a lot of young, talented, Aussie players do. It becomes a little bit easy, you can be a big fish.
"The fact he wasn't comfortable with that and he has gone and made himself uncomfortable in a new environment says a lot."
After a phenomenal rise at the Phoenix, where he was the A-League's best left back as a teenager, Cacace immediately sensed the step up in Belgium.
"[The first training] was very difficult, a high intensity session and I remember thinking, 'geez I don't know what I have got myself into'," recalls Cacace. "I was thinking it was going to be a really long season for me, maybe struggling to get minutes."
But he adjusted quickly, starting his first match within a few weeks of arriving.
"It was a bit nerve wracking," says Cacace. "But having [coach] Kevin Muscat and [assistant] Luciano Trani was reassuring. They told me to enjoy it, there is a reason why you are here."
Then came the first speed bump, with Muscat and Trani sacked in early December 2020.
The familiarity with the A-League duo had been a big factor in Cacace opting for Sint-Truidense, over other choices.
"That's football," says Cacace, "You have to move on."
There was an initial surge under new manager Peter Maes, but the season was still a battle. During the depths of winter they picked up just two points from five matches, and the tension was perceptible around the football-mad town.
"It was hard, lingering around the bottom of the ladder," says Cacace. "Coming to training knowing you are fighting relegation, fighting for your career. At the same time you just had to move on, pick up points wherever you could."
Maes could also be a tough customer.
"He was yelling at you, trying to get under your skin," says Cacace. "But it was nothing personal, he was just trying to make you a better player. Personally, it was actually a pretty good first season, because it is not an easy jump."
There was more change, as Maes moved to another Belgian club, replaced by Bernd Hollerbach. The German brought an old-school approach to pre-season, with morning training sessions followed by gruelling afternoon runs.
"It was 10 or 11 kilometres in the forest, at a pretty hard speed," says Cacace.
But, as ever, he adapted, pointing out it helped him to feel fitter and "lighter on his feet" as he dropped a couple of kilos.
The memorable Olympics campaign followed, with Cacace playing every minute of every game for the Oly Whites, highlighted by his stunning goal against Honduras.
"His mentality was something to behold, for any young Kiwi player," says Hay. "The position that he was playing and to play every single minute says a lot about how far he has come, in a short space of time."
But there was no respite upon his return to Belgium, back to training the day after his arrival. He was then used in right midfield for one match before another strange experience – being benched for two games.
That was the first time Cacace didn't start a match he was available for since March 2018, when he was an unused sub in a Phoenix game.
But the 21-year-old has quickly bounced back, starting the last four games (three victories) as Sint-Truiden have moved up to 11th.
"It's very competitive here," says Cacace. "Back at the Phoenix you had maybe one person in your position but here I have three other people in my position, wanting my spot. You have to adapt."
Life is going well. Cacace enjoys the cosmopolitan dressing room ("there are 11 or 12 different nationalities") and experiencing a new culture and life in Belgium –"it's a cool country".
Cacace was linked with Juventus last year, while two German clubs were monitoring him closely in the off season. He has made no secret of his future ambitions but realises the importance of regular game time and steady improvement.
"I always told myself I wanted to make the next step where I was going to play and this move has been spot on," says Cacace. "I've developed as a person and a player. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years but I will take that one day at a time.
"The market is very unpredictable at the moment and Covid has really shaken things up. My focus is to perform well and then anything can happen."