We head deeper into group E and next up is New Zealand.
The Football Ferns, which is the nickname of the island’s beloved team, will head to their fifth World Cup, having qualified for their first back in 1991 for the inaugural cup in China. It would then be a 14-year long wait until they qualified for their next one, the 2007 edition, and they’ve qualified for all the others since, although never being able to make it out of the group stages. The road to France was quite a straightforward one for the Ferns, as they went through the qualification with 42 goals scored and 0 conceded in their five games. They went up against Tonga, Cook Island, Fiji and New Caledonia, winning with numbers like 11-0 and 8-0 in the OFC Women’s Nations Cup.
Ali Riley is one of the names to look out for in the squad, as the vastly experienced fullback is looking to add another World Cup to her belt, having already played in three World Cups and three Olympics. The team captain is a strong presence at the back, and with her knowledge of big tournaments, she’ll be a huge asset. This is quite the comeback squad that coach Tom Sermanni will bring to France. Striker Hannah Wilkinson suffered a serious ACL-injury back in October, but thanks to her grit and determination she has managed to work her way back to match-fitness and is one of the 23 players named in the squad going to the World Cup.
“I am so honoured to be named in this squad. It was an amazing feeling last week when I got the call from Tom. I am also really proud of myself because I know that I have worked really hard to get back,” she said.
“The first thing I thought about when the injury happened was France. That my World Cup dream was over. But my mentality from the get-go was to focus and work hard every day. I had doubt coming from all areas so that was a real test to listen to my inner self and my inner belief. Month after month I saw the progress. Suddenly we hit five months and I was looking pretty good to come back. There have been a lot of important lessons and it has been quite a journey,” she continued.
Another forward who has made it into the team is Emma Kete, who got the spot ahead of other strikers despite only having her first appearance for the Ferns since 2015 earlier this year.
“Emma’s comeback is a great lesson in maturity and how you can really play your way back in. If you are really focused, work hard and look to do the right things, you have got an opportunity. She has come back into the fold after being away from the team for a long time, but she has shown her intent to be a part of this squad,” coach Sermanni said of the forward.
Another important player to have on the team is defender Abby Erceg, a real veteran who has more than 100 senior appearances for the Ferns and who came out of retirement for a second time in January, only to be selected for the team for a fourth World Cup.
The Scottish coach Sermanni has a lot of experience in the women’s game, and this will be his fourth World Cup, having started his illustrious career with Australia back in 1995. He rejoined the Matildas to lead them to the quarterfinals in 2007 and 2011, took over the United States women’s national team for a year, was amongst the staff for the Canadian women’s national team during the World Cup 2015, then Orlando Pride for two years, before returning to international duty in October 2018 with the Ferns.
The Scot is a welcome refresher in the team after the previous coach Andreas Heraf caused a lot of drama. The Austrian coach spoke after the team lost 2-0 to Japan back in June 2018, saying that New Zealand “will never have (the) quality to compete” with the likes of Japan, which caused a lot of upset and lead to serious allegations emerging about the coach. The players association sent the NZF a letter voicing concerns about the coach, and 13 players had signed the letter saying they did not want to work under him anymore, as the coach allegedly upheld a ‘culture of intimidation’ and Ercag, the retired player who returned, described him as ‘delusional’.
Sermanni seems to change in between formations, depending on what kind of team they’re meeting, and against the likes of Norway and Australia, where he seemed to feel the need to be more defensively rigid, they played a 5-3-2, and they’ve also played the likes of 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1.
New Zealand participated in the Cup of Nations, which is a friendlies tournament consisting of four teams – Australia, Argentina, South Korea and the Ferns themselves, who suffered losses to the Matildas and South Korea but beat Argentina 2-0. They also played a friendly against Norway, which they won 1-0 and is considered a huge win for the side. New Zealand is going to play some more last minute friendlies before the World Cup, going up against the US on the 17th of May, England on the 1st of June and Wales on the 4th of June, before they kick off their World Cup campaign on the 11th.
That’s a wrap on the New Zealand team, and this inspirational group of athletes is surely one to keep an eye out for. But will they be able to make it past their group that contains tough opponents like Canada and Cameroon? Let us know what you think in the comment section below!