In a small stadium in Colonia, Uruguay, 21 Young Football Ferns and their coaches danced in a circle, yelling at full voice: “What team? One team! One team, New Zealand!”
In the evening sun, you could see tears on Aneka Mittendorff’s face as she led the chant. You could also see the reality beginning to dawn: the U17 Young Football Ferns had not only made it out of their group for the first time ever, but now they had beaten Japan and made a World Cup semi-final.
The New Zealanders will contest a playoff for third place against Canada on Sunday, having lost to Spain 2-0 on Thursday. Whatever happens in that game, though, their place in the story of New Zealand sport is already secure: they are history-makers. That has been a favoured label in the past week as more people have engaged with the side (another achievement) and it encapsulates how unprecedented the campaign has been. So, is this team special? Are we witnessing the arrival of what is so often termed a “golden generation”?
This team is certainly special, but they are not what the term “golden generation” tends to suggest: an anomaly, a fortuitous gathering of rare individuals all at once. These history-makers are part of something bigger. Gareth Turnbull, the coach of the Junior Football Ferns and manager of the Future Ferns Domestic Programme (FFDP), described it to me as threads beginning to come together, and those threads are a story that should be told.
It begins in 2006, when New Zealand became host of the first ever Under 17 Women’s World Cup. The inaugural team was subsequently formed. Caitlin Campbell was in that team, and recalls how they dubbed themselves the “First Generation Young Football Ferns”, or ‘YFF’ for short. It was a memorable tournament-Campbell was able to tell me that there were 12, 123 people (exactly) at their first match- and for the players and coaches, led by Paul Temple, “it was uncharted territory. We didn’t really know what to expect, it had never been done before”. Despite that uncertainty, the First Generation YFF were very clear about the history they were creating, and they wanted to start something for future generations. “We always talked about legacy”, said player Sarah McLaughlin, another player from that team. Paul Temple echoed this too, saying that’s “100% what the tournament was all about”. Campbell remembers a “responsibility to set the bar for everyone who would come after us, which obviously 10 years later, with these girls, everything that we did in our time has led up to this moment”.
Although the first Young Ferns fell short of making it out of the group, their efforts definitely played their part in creating our 2018 story. The public were exposed to women’s football, and young players sitting in the stands were shown a glimpse of their potential future. Some of those same young players pulled on the white jersey for a World Cup semi-final on Thursday morning. In 2008, the First Generation YFF became role models, and 10 years on, role models are a vital component of the 2018 success.
As New Zealand Football’s Women’s Football Development Manager Holly Nixon points out, we currently have a lot of role models. “The Football Ferns play a massive part” in Nixon’s eyes, and “their good value set, their confidence and leadership [are] what is driving everyone to be better”. That value set is the well-known ethos of loving the game and taking pride in what they do. There has been the same love and pride flowing through every move the Young Ferns have made in Uruguay. It made it even more awesome to watch the Ferns celebrating their younger counterparts’ success all the way from New Caledonia.
— Katie Bowen (@Kati3bowen) November 24, 2018
Nixon also emphasised that New Zealand is seeing a new kind of role model for these players: our professionals. Making a living out of football is now a tangible reality. The road to that particular point began in 2010, and leads us to a thread that Turnbull personally sees as central to this entire success story: the creation of environments to create footballers.
When most of the Young Ferns currently making history in Uruguay were 9 years old, John Herdman and New Zealand Football introduced the Whole of Football Plan. Almost everyone I talked to highlighted this as the turning point for New Zealand. Extensively researched and highly-detailed, the plan set out how we would go about creating our future All Whites and Ferns, beginning with First Kicks for four year olds. For the first time, our game had structure around it. We began to focus on problem-solving, physical and tactical competencies, as well as technique proficiencies. Small-sided games and decision-oriented coaching took over, the Federation Talent Centres were born to give talented youngsters more chances to play football. Holly Nixon also noted that, “the plan was moulded to New Zealand culture, so it worked”. New Zealand Football now knew both where they were going and how to get there.
The 2018 Young Football Ferns are the first group to have gone right through the programme. The players were developed by the system, and so were their coaches, all of whom are products of New Zealand’s coach education. Whilst you could never attribute this whole campaign to one thing or another, the Whole of Football Plan and New Zealand Football’s dedication to creating structured environments for development has clearly begun to pay off.
So are we seeing an entirely new type of player making the difference for these 17s? Gareth Turnbull wouldn’t go that far: “As a generalisation we have a slightly more technically proficient player than 5 years ago, but even back then we had technically proficient players”, and moreover, “you don’t want 11 of the same”. For him, rather, “if I were to put it down to one word, it’s environment” and that means it’s the way in which squads are developed and balanced.
He points to differentiating factors like experience with these Young Ferns, like Anna Leat, who has played 3 seasons of National League and is capped with the Ferns. These are young footballers who have played at a high level much earlier than most, because of the growth of our National Women’s League.Embed from Getty Images
The FFDP is another evolution in the commitment to the idea of sound environments, and has led to a rise in the number of professionals that can act as role models. In that way, the Whole of Football Plan weaves those threads, of inspiration and development, together. But what Turnbull emphasised in all this is that all these things are just “pieces of the puzzle”. As Holly Nixon put it, “it’s been a whole range of people and experiences and systems that have got them to where they are”.
But notwithstanding all these plans and systems that have played their role, the Young Ferns are still underdogs. They have exceeded expectation. And that means there has been another, intrinsic quality. It’s often talked about, often visible, and sometimes described as part of being a kiwi. It has manifested in a determination and passion in the Young Ferns’ play that helped them come back from a goal down against Uruguay, win a penalty shootout against Japan, and disrupt the rhythm of one of the world’s best exponents of possession football. This quality, whatever it is, has had its role to play in helping the Ferns make history. I like Gareth Turnbull’s description of it: “We just know it’s just who we are. We’re diligent, we’re hard-working. We might not have some of the qualities of our opponents, but we can mask that […] We will always be the underdog, and that’s fine”.
Who we look up to. How we play. What the Ferns stand for. Who we are. These are all elements of what the 17s have achieved in Uruguay. Their success has been phenomenal, and it will undoubtedly inspire young footballers who are currently mentally calculating how long it is until they can play for the 17s. We have a new cast of role models, and they more than deserve the respect of the country. They are a special group in that sense, but also they are a success story for so many people that have helped lead them to this point. Amongst everything else that the Young Football Ferns of 2018 have shown us, there is proof that there is no such thing as a mystical golden generation, just a well-developed one.
"You know what we've just done?" An incredible day for @NZ_Football, @LeonBirnie, his squad, and families who've flown thousands of miles to support them. Enjoy your night. 🇳🇿👏👏👏. #U17WWC pic.twitter.com/Xec3hN4kkB
— FIFA Women's World Cup 🇫🇷 (@FIFAWWC) November 24, 2018
A lover of the game since the age of 4. Living and playing for club and school in Auckland and loving every second on the pitch (apart from the end of a losing match).