This article is part of the Guardian’s 2019 Women’s World Cup Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organizations from the 24 countries who have qualified for France. The Equalizer, as part of the network, will profile each of the 24 countries.
It’s a case of in with the old and in with the older as New Zealand’s Football Ferns look to emerge from the gloom of a succession of unfulfilled new dawns onto the bright stage of the World Cup in France.
Putting it bluntly, the celebration of the emancipation of women’s football in New Zealand turned into a bit of a car crash on June 10, 2018.
With New Zealand Football having made an unprecedented leap towards equality by granting the nation’s female internationals the same entitlements as their male counterparts (equal pay and business class travel to international matches), the first new dawn had arrived. A friendly match against global power Japan in Wellington was billed a celebration of another example of the first country to allow women to vote continuing to lead the world in smashing glass ceilings.
Big things were expected of players who were no longer burdened by a build-up that had traditionally included 12-24 hours cramped in cattle class as they journeyed from their European and U.S. professional clubs. The biggest crowd for women’s football match in the country’s history rolled into to Wellington Stadium to witness, well, an absolute horror show.
Acting under instructions from Austrian coach Andreas Heraf, the Football Ferns parked something more akin to a jumbo jet than a bus in front of goal. New Zealand is hardly a nation steeped in an unrelenting commitment to the beautiful game, but the “anti football” served up by the Ferns was bad enough to shock the nation. It was a return to the dark ages.
Heraf was unrepentant. “We will never have that quality to compete with Japan”, he said post match, suggesting a team whose results against that country include a 2-2 draw at the 2008 Olympics and a 2-1 defeat at the 2011 World Cup, would have lost 8-0 had they attempted to pass the ball.
Heraf’s negativity went down like a cup of cold sick in a country that prides itself on willfully ignoring the realities of its tiny population and geographic isolation. “You can see how I couldn’t stand to wear that fern on my chest any more when his vision was to cower in a corner and not get beat by too much,” former captain Abbey Erceg – who had quit prior to the Japan match – said.
With another dozen players subsequently refusing to play again under Heraf, the coach was duly dismissed.
Tom Sermanni, a 64-year-old Scotsman who has coached the United States and Australia, was charged with ensuring a second new dawn does not collapse into darkness. So far so good. Erceg and former vice captain Katie Duncan have returned to the fold, bringing over 250 caps of experience with them. The team coasted through a weak Oceania competition in qualifying and beat Norway and England in friendlies but have also lost warm-up games against Australia, South Korea, and Wales.
The Ferns, it seems, will head to France with a spring in their step and, most importantly, joy back in their hearts. They will defend doggedly but when they get the ball they will play, and they’ll be dangerous on the break. They shouldn’t be ignored.
He looks like a silver-haired Italian fox and has the name to suit, but when Tom Sermanni opens his mouth it’s clear he hasn’t just flown in from the Med. Sermanni, in fact, hails from the rough-as-guts housing estates of Milton, Glasgow.
After 151 games for Albion Rovers, his playing career took him to Blackpool, Canberra and, fittingly, Christchurch, New Zealand. As a coach specializing in the women’s game, he has been to the very top, leading the United States to an historic undefeated season in 2013, only to be sacked early in 2014 when the team failed at the Algarve Cup, losing to Sweden and Denmark in the group. Prior to that he served for seven years over two stints as head coach of the Australian Matildas.
New Zealand doesn’t really do silkily skilled strikers (1990s Werder Bremen star Wynton Rufer and, ahem, Burnley’s Chris Wood excepted). But the country does produce its share of handy defenders (Ryan Nelson, Winston Reid et al). The women’s game is no different, with veteran defender Erceg the standout in a solid defense. The North Carolina Courage captain has twice quit the national team due to frustrations about conditions and coaching methods, but with those issues ironed out, the former captain of more than 130 caps is now firmly back in the fold.
Did you know?
The head of global women’s footballer is a New Zealander with a passion for the brutal sport of mixed martial arts. FIFA head of women’s football, Sarai Bareman, grew up in West Auckland, developing a fondness for martial arts watching her brother Eugene compete as a kickboxer. Eugene Bareman now coaches a clutch of UFC stars including middleweight world champion Israel Adesanya. Bareman, who works out of Fifa HQ in Geneva, never misses a show when Eugene’s fighters are in action.
Brief history of women’s football in New Zealand
New Zealand is a rare case of a nation that has managed to simultaneously under and over-achieve in women’s football. Compared to the nation’s men, who are wedged between Guinea-Bissau and Tajikistan at 119th on the FIFA rankings ladder, the Football Ferns soar as the 19th-best nation on the planet.
But they have never qualified out of the group stage in a major tournament, despite a clutch of good results against major teams. In fairness, that has been very much the lot of just about every Kiwi football team at major events – even the unbeatable All Whites heroes of 2010 exited South Africa at the group stage despite not losing a match.
That finally changed at the 2018 U-17 Girls World Cup in Uruguay, where the Kiwi girls made a thrilling, highly unlikely run to the semi-finals, and ultimately claimed third place with a victory over Canada. That breakthrough effort is viewed as inspirational by the senior women’s team, which knows it could cause plenty of teams headaches in knockout play if they could just find a way out of their group. Surely history beckons in France.
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
If a hero does emerge at the world cup it will almost certainly be goalkeeper Erin Nayler. Her quality is well known to Kiwi fans and, indeed, many in France, where she plays for Bordeaux.
What is the realistic aim for New Zealand in France and why?
They could win it. No, really. That might be fanciful for a team that has never made it out of group play and is routinely outclassed by the game’s global heavyweights, but the Kiwis will be in it to win it. They have a great goal keeper, defend stoutly and can score goals – qualities that would make them dangerous in knockout matches, if only they can get there. To ensure that, they’ll likely need to grab a draw against Netherlands (ranked 8th) or Canada (5th) and smash lowly-ranked Cameroon (47th).
Annual budget for the women’s national team (compared to men’s)
NZF’s total budget for its nine national teams for 2019 is $NZ3.6m (£1.82m). Because of the women’s World Cup more of that budget will be spent on the senior women’s team that the senior men’s team.
Number of registered female players
New Zealand Football says it has nearly 30,000 female players officially registered at clubs and another 36,000 in its recreational pathway (football in schools, festivals, holiday programmes etc). This figure has grown by 35% in recent years.
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