[This piece first appeared in the Hamilton Wanderers’ match day programme ‘sidelined’ on Sunday 10 February 2019]
It may have escaped the notice of some in our game, but despite what Goal.com and no doubt a few other red faced pundits would have you believe, there is in fact a World Cup this year. It’s taking place in France from 7 June to 7 July and it certainly hasn’t escaped my notice – for two reasons really. One is I avidly follow the women’s game. The other is the fact that Italy are actually in this one! For that reason alone I’ll be taking a lot more interest in the Women’s World Cup than I did in the vastly inferior blokes’ version that took place last year in Russia.
And what’s more – New Zealand are in it too! In case you aren’t aware, the Football Ferns, currently ranked 19th in the world, earned their place in commanding fashion at last year’s Oceania Nations Cup where they dispatched all who came before them – scoring 43 goals and conceding none in the process. It was both the perfect start to new coach Tom Sermanni’s reign and the perfect way to banish the demons of the previous regime’s well-publicised failings.
But the best news is you don’t have to wait until June to watch our super talented team take on the world. Because Australia have very kindly invited us to a cracker of a warm-up tournament they’ve put together – the Cup of Nations (because ‘Nations Cup’ was already taken), and it gets underway in just a little over a fortnight’s time.
Joining both our Ferns and Aussie’s Matildas in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne will be South Korea and Argentina. The four teams will play each other once each in a nice wee simulation of a challenging World Cup group stage.
This is going to be well worth a watch, if for no other reason than to see how the Australian players react to the recent turmoil their side has been facing – in a saga that isn’t too far removed from that which the Ferns endured in 2018.
The most successful coach in Matildas history, Alen Stajcic, was sacked almost completely out of the blue a few weeks ago. Football Federation Australia pointed to “a range of factors”. Chief amongst them appeared to be a toxic team culture, but there are precious few details with CEO David Gallop citing confidentiality and legal reasons for leaving us all guessing. The information vacuum has only been filled by wild speculation on both sides. Stajcic’s supporters are blaming #metoo and a feminist conspiracy to get a female coach in charge. On the other side there are tales of fat shaming and homophobia in the Aussie camp under Stajcic’s leadership.
As always, the truth probably lies somewhere in between – we’ll probably never know.
All we do know is this is less than ideal build-up for a World Cup – which might make the Matildas ripe for the picking in the Ferns’ opening game in Sydney. Then again this Aussie side is number 6 in the world, and thought to be genuine World Cup title contenders, for many good reasons. Their squad is stacked with talent, including one of the best footballers on the planet right now – Sam Kerr.
Kerr, who plays her club football for Perth Glory and the Chicago Red Stars, is a phenomenon across the ditch. Big crowds turn up to watch her play and thousands of Aussie girls and boys alike have her name on the backs of their shirts. This is a state of affairs we can only dream of here in New Zealand for the time being – even if the day may well be coming ever sooner if the Young Ferns’ showing in last year’s Under 17 World Cup, and the public’s reaction to it, was anything to go by.
South Korea are no slouches either. Ranked five places higher than the Ferns, they are particularly known for their miserly defence that didn’t concede any goals in their four games at the 2018 Asian Cup – where they secured qualification for France. Keep an eye out for their star play maker, number 10 Ji So-yun. At 28 years of age she’s been integral to the national set-up since age 15, having scored 49 goals in 109 appearances, as well as being a mainstay of Chelsea’s UK Women’s Super League side since 2014. With a nickname like ‘Ji Messi’ there’s no pressure on her or anything.
If the Ferns are expected to come away with a win from facing any of these teams, 36th ranked Argentina are the pick despite the South Americans’ reputation in the men’s game. France will be their first Women’s World Cup in twelve years and in just two appearances on the big stage they have yet to progress from their group. Things are looking up though with the return of Carlos Borrello, the coach who was in charge both times they qualified. Borrello masterminded their 2019 qualification via an intercontinental playoff against Panama thanks to a 4-0 victory in the home leg and they now have their sights set on making history… Although, like the Australians, they might also have one eye back home.
Buenos Aires club player Macarena Sanchez is making huge waves, taking the Argentine national body to court in a landmark equal pay case that has captured the interest of many of us who believe that women in the game don’t get a fair deal. Argentina’s female footballers are classified as amateur despite their men’s leagues being fully professional right down to the third tier. Sanchez is seeking seven years’ back pay for all her work in the women’s game, and she has the support of many Argentinian internationals who will be watching with interest along with the rest of us.
As for the Ferns, Sermanni has chosen an interesting squad to cross the ditch. The big talking point is the return of several old hands who have been out of the frame for a while. Unattached striker Emma Kete hasn’t played high level football since 2016 and hasn’t been a Fern since 2012, Katie Duncan has come out of retirement, Daisy Cleverley returns from the States and an ACL injury to take the place of highly rated Malia Steinmetz, and in by far the most welcome development of the bunch former captain Abby Erceg is back.
No doubt this tournament will be used to test combinations and give players like Kete a chance to prove themselves if they want to go to France. But the squad as a whole has a point to prove as well. The team has been underperforming of late and hasn’t managed a win against a higher ranked team since 2015’s historic victory over Brazil in Sao Paulo.
There’s a real energy around this team now though, and a definite sense that they could be on the verge of something special. They will take inspiration from the heroics of the under 17s, as we all did, and look to make sure that the senior squad don’t get shown up too much by those youngsters in Uruguay!
And if they do make history in June and July, you will want to tell everyone you were watching from the start of the campaign. Keep an eye out for viewing options and tune in for the start of what really promises to be an exciting ride!
Cup of Nations Schedule:
(All times pm, NZDT)
28 February, Sydney
6:35: Argentina v Korea Republic
9:30: Australia v New Zealand
3 March, Brisbane
6:05: Argentina v New Zealand
9:00: Australia v Korea Republic
6 March, Melbourne
5:05: Korea Republic v New Zealand
8:00: Australia v Argentina
Categories: Football Ferns
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: http://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/