It's not often you pick up a professional contract when you're on holiday, unless you're already earning squllions a week and can afford to traipse off to places likes Monte Carlo or St Tropez.

Liam Graham was on a family holiday in Croatia when he was summoned to a trial in Italy with Serie B side Vicenza Calcio. He immediately bought himself a pair of football boots, travelled to the northern Italian city and, eight days later, signed a one-year contract.

Graham is just one of an increasing number of New Zealand footballers with professional contracts or university scholarships.

The Junior All Whites squad which will this week attempt to qualify for this year's Under-20 World Cup in Colombia contains no less than eight professionals and two more at US colleges. One has already made his All Whites debut (Marco Rojas) and another is in the wider squad (Luke Rowe).

Coach Chris Milicich could have included more professionals but decided he wanted half of the 20-man squad to come from Australasian-based players who had played extensively with each other.

Most are regulars in the ASB Premiership, including Dakota Lucas who scored two goals for Waitakere United in their grand final win over Auckland City.

It meant Milicich could afford to leave out the likes of Cameron Lindsay (Blackburn), Caleb Rufer and Chris Wood (West Brom but on loan with Brighton) who all have extensive professional experience.

Wood, who played at last year's World Cup and has played in the English Premier League, was given leave to help his Brighton side win promotion to England's League One and will come into the squad should they qualify for Colombia.

The number of professionals is a significant increase from New Zealand under-20 teams of the past. The last intake (2008) had two, the 2007 squad one, the 2005 team none and 2002 Junior All Whites had four.

It's a reflection of New Zealand's increased presence at world tournaments since Australia moved into Asia in 2006 - as well as the improved status of New Zealand footballers around the world. Last year's World Cup only enhanced that.

It's also recognition New Zealand's best talent need to get into professional environments as soon as they can. While the Wellington Phoenix provide a pathway, only a limited number can go there and the club have often signed Australians as one of their three mandatory under-21 players.

Heading offshore is still the best idea for aspiring players because, aside from the Phoenix, New Zealand clubs can offer players at best three or four training sessions a week.

"There's a passion and desire in young players today to become professionals," Milicich says.

"Often their parents have made huge commitments to get them offshore into these professional environments. It's really difficult to become a pro now, which is why a lot of them are going down the US college system. Players see it as a possible career path and will do what it takes to make it."

Players have gone to US colleges for some time - Ryan Nelsen and Simon Elliott started there - but more are seeing it as a viable alternative to Europe.

The New Zealand Professional Footballers Association, driven largely by senior All Whites like Tim Brown and Ivan Vicelich, recently funded a tour of the US for eligible players and 11 of the 14 who went have since been offered scholarships.

There are now more than 40 New Zealand men playing professionally around the world with a further 50 or so on scholarships in the US. The presence of New Zealand teams at World Cups of all levels will only enhance that number and it also improves New Zealand's chances when they get there.

It means the under-20s will be overwhelming favourites heading into this week's World Cup qualifiers in Auckland, especially considering none of the other six teams have a professional among them.

But New Zealand have traditionally struggled in this age group and have qualified only once in three times since Australia moved out. Australia won every qualifying tournament before their departure.

"People can say we are overwhelming favourites but I disagree," Milicich says.

"You only have to look at history. The last New Zealand side was pretty tidy and they came third. Anything can happen in this type of football [with semifinals and a final]. If we do it right, we have a good chance of going through."

The Junior All Whites have pace and creativity but these could be nullified by what could be a poor playing surface at Mangere's Centre Park.

For Graham it will all be part of his football education, which included a stint in Japan before the deal in Italy. It hasn't always been easy but it's about belief.

"Growing up in New Zealand you think, 'man, professional players must be amazing," he says. "But when you get there, it's not that amazing. I can actually do this.

"I think it's harder for kids from New Zealand [to make it]. I remember going to Vicenza on trial and the Italians asked me where I was from. When I told them, they would give me weird looks, almost like, 'what are you doing here? They were quite surprised I could actually play."

The All Whites famously did the same thing at last year's World Cup. The chances of these things happened again in the future will only improve with the more New Zealanders who play professionally.

The Professionals
* Stefan Marinovich(SV Wehen Wiesbaden, Germany)
The lanky goalkeeper was a product of Wynton Rufer's Wynrs programme and has been in Germany for the past two years.

* Liam Graham(Vicenza Calcio, Italy)
Graham picked up a contract after impressing in an eight-day trial. The defender plays for the primavera side (reserves) in a largely under-20 league.

* James Musa(Wellington Phoenix)
The 18-year-old central defender spent the last season with Wellington as one of their three under-21 players and made three appearances.

* Luke Rowe(Birmingham City, England)
The England-born defender came to the attention of New Zealand Football last year and was last month selected for the All Whites. Highly-rated player at a Premier League club.

* Neko Vujevich (Gold Coast United, Australia)
The 18-year-old defender has played representative football for both New Zealand and Australia but has committed to his country of birth.

* Cory Chettleburg (Sparta Rotterdam, Holland)
Diminutive midfielder who trialled at the Phoenix last winter before joining Rotterdam. Played at the 2007 Under-17 World Cup.

* Jamie Doris(Hibernian, Scotland)
Accomplished midfielder who has been with Hibs for the past two years and still has one year left on his contract.

* Marco Rojas (Melbourne Victory, Australia)
The tricky midfielder was a standout for Wellington last season and was recently recruited by Melbourne. Made his All Whites debut against China last month.