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Sligo star set for crunch World Cup qualifiers in Qatar

Nando Pijnaker has made an encouraging start to life with Liam Buckley’s men.

Nando Pijnaker (file pic).
Nando Pijnaker (file pic).
Image: Photosport/Shane Wenzlick/INPHO

NANDO PIJNAKER didn’t have much time to relax after featuring in Sligo’s 2-2 draw with Shamrock Rovers on Friday night.

The 23-year-old, who was born in the Netherlands but moved to New Zealand aged three, was catching a flight to Qatar the following morning for international duty.

He opted to represent the All Whites at international level and they now have some crucial World Cup qualifiers coming up. They have been paired in a group with New Caledonia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Should New Zealand finish in the top two, they will advance to the knockout stages, which encompass the semi-finals and potentially final, with the latter game due to take place on 30 March.

Sligo’s next Premier Division fixture is at home to Shelbourne on 2 April, and they are hopeful of having Pijnaker back in time even if his country goes all the way in the tournament, which they will be strongly fancied to do as the highest-ranked side competing.

Should the Kiwis win all their games, they will then face the team that finishes fourth in the CONCACAF Third Round in June, with the victor securing a spot at the World Cup later this year.

Pijnaker has already missed New Zealand’s opening group game — a hard-fought 1-0 win over Papua New Guinea on Friday — as it clashed with his club’s trip to Tallaght Stadium.

The young defender, who has featured in all six of second-place Sligo’s Premier Division matches so far, says manager Liam Buckley didn’t need to persuade him to stay for the Shamrock Rovers game.

“Of course, he would want me to. And I wanted to as well. I just signed for the club at the start of this season so I can’t really say: ‘Look, can I go early, please?’ I wanted to stay and I’m happy I did, we got an okay result.”

Now that his club commitments have been fulfilled, Pijnaker can fully focus on a couple of vital matches for his country — their second group game takes place today at 5pm Irish time against Fiji, with a win set to guarantee their passage into the knockout stages.

“We’ve been working towards the World Cup for a while now. We’ve done a lot of preparation, now these are the games that matter. We can’t afford to lose these games, I guess and we’re expected to win as well. So there’s pressure on and we’re all feeling good.”

It was during the last international window that Pijnaker first got word of Sligo’s interest and he ultimately signed on a season-long loan from Portuguese outfit Rio Ave.

Pijnaker had big shoes to fill, as he was coming into a defence that had lost key player John Mahon, who left to join Scottish side St Johnstone in the off-season.

The early signs are promising, with Buckley praising his overall contribution on Friday night.

“I wasn’t sure whether I was staying with my club in Portugal,” Pijnaker adds. “I took all my bags with me [on international duty]. My agent mentioned Sligo Rovers. I obviously knew [New Zealand international] Ryan De Vries — he played at Sligo for the last two seasons prior to this one. So I knew a little bit about the league and I have a friend at Shelbourne [Adam Thomas] as well to talk to and see what to expect from the league and that’s how it came about. It happened very quickly.

“I know a few [New Zealand] players that have come to the league and also a few Irish people that have come to the New Zealand league. So I think we get along quite well.”

Pijnaker also consulted Rory Fallon, formerly a player with Ipswich, Barnsley and Aberdeen among many others, who previously lined out for New Zealand and now is on their coaching staff, and whose English-born father Kevin played regularly for Sligo between 1967 and 1970.

He is surplus to requirements for now at least at Rio Ave, who are top of the second tier in Portugal at the time of writing, with the Bit O’Red offering the prospect of more regular game time.

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“It was a tough situation,” he says. “I missed the pre-season because I was away with the Olympics and came a little late. A new team came in and they had the team already organised. [The manager] said that I wasn’t part of their plans right then so I could look for another opportunity. If things go well here at Sligo, I can talk to the club and see what happens.”

And while he has yet to fully establish himself in Portugal since moving there in 2020, Pijnaker has quickly become an integral player for Sligo.

“Playing at big stadiums like [Tallaght], I can’t really complain. It is important to play games if I want to be part of the national team. I have that opportunity here and hopefully, I can keep doing that.”

He is also not the only New Zealand international currently at Sligo, with former Grasshoppers teammate Max Mata, who came off the bench on Friday, joining the Showgrounds outfit recently after being released by Swiss side Real Monarchs back in December.

“I’ve got my own apartment, but it’s super close to Max Mata. He’s another New Zealander who I can hang out with all the time.

“But all the guys on the team have been welcoming. We go for coffee together and it’s been really good — we’re settled in really well.”

A new episode of The Front Row, in partnership with Guinness, is out now. After Ireland’s Triple Crown win, Murray Kinsella gives us the rundown on his team of the tournament. Ireland international Sene Naoupu also joins the panel to chat about her career and look ahead to the start of the Women’s Six Nations. Click here to subscribe or listen below:

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Paul Fennessy

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