Footy Ferns at the 2019 World Cup: The End of the Line vs Cameroon

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In the end it wasn’t to be. With numbers forward, pressing for a desperate winner into the final minute of stoppage time, the Ferns got caught on the break by Cameroon and a bit of Ajara Nchout magic allowed her to cut inside and curl one inside the far post with eleven seconds remaining in the game and put Cameroon through into the next round with a 2-1 victory. It was a stunning finale to the game and a bit of a famous moment for African women’s football as they’ll have two representatives in the final sixteen for the first time… but for the Ferns it didn’t make a bit of difference.

We had to win in order to progress. A draw meant nothing and a loss was irrelevant. Only three points would do and the Ferns went down fighting, putting all their cards on the table with that all or nothing mentality. That included Abby Erceg hanging around up top and flicking on headers. It included Rebekah Stott pushing forwards. When Ajara Nchout scored that dramatic late winner she had a defensive midfielder and a left-back to deal with as she and four of her teammates pressed onwards – if the Ferns had needed to they could have prevented that one with a bit of structure but they knew what really mattered.

So while this may have been a second winner conceded deep into stoppage time this World Cup it was a completely different scenario to the Netherlands game. Effectively, the only thing that mattered was that we didn’t win. We could have won. There were chances. The last fifteen minutes saw some utterly frantic football where goals at either end looked likely. But scoring goals was always going to be the problem for this team and in arguably the biggest game they’ve ever played, the Football Ferns couldn’t make it happen.

Much like the entire Canada game, the first half they didn’t even look like scoring. The injury to CJ Bott meant there was always going to be some reshuffling and Tom Sermanni went with the Anna Green & Back Three option, sliding Katie Bowen to right back and looking to get the wingbacks really surging forwards in support of Sarah Gregorius and Rosie White up front. The other interesting one was that Katie Duncan came into the midfield for Betsy Hassett so the idea of which of Hassett and Annalie Longo would play, or maybe both, ended up being: neither. They had to take their minutes off the bench in the second half instead. That felt like a gamble and it’s possible it was both a good and a bad one. Duncan was really impressive. She brought some extra strength to the midfield and her energy in that first half was one of our best outlets. But at the same time it meant there was no link in the midfield, no Hassett or Longo to string things together.

Product of all that was a scrappy first half, where New Zealand for decent stretches appeared the more dangerous team yet had almost nothing to show for it as crosses were picked off and passes were misplaced in that attacking third (and deeper) while Cameroon had a bundle of shots but almost all of them were from distance and never a threat – outside a couple times where Gabrielle Onguene was able to run at or behind the defence. She tried to chip Erin Nayler once but Nayler was good for it. She tried to beat Nayler to a through ball once but Nayler was good for it. Onguene was easily the most creative player on the park though and when the Cameroon front three was able to isolate out defensive trio then things got squeaky.

But just like our other two games at this tournament, we were still level at 0-0 going into half-time. And you sorta got the feeling that if we’d only needed a draw then we could have cruised towards that… but a draw wasn’t where it was at and we had to take some risks in order to create something. However Cameroon were in the exact same situation and with Onguene hovering around they were always a threat. Always a possibility. More of a possibility than the Ferns were, to be brutally honest. 58th minute of the game, Ajara Nchout’s shimmying first touch spun her past Abby Erceg and her finish was composed and precise and that was the exact moment that this game got real.

It’s hard to be too critical of the Ferns when their deficiencies this tournament have been the obvious ones that we already knew they had. It wasn’t sloppiness or under-performing, it was just the natural imbalance of a defensively profound team. But maybe it’s fair to say that they didn’t get truly desperate until after they conceded. Ten minutes later Katie Duncan and Anna Green were sacrificed for Betsy Hassett and Hannah Wilkinson. Both those players would be involved in some of our best attacking moments. It was back four time but it was still aggressive fullback time, time to mix it up.

Before those subs, Erin Nayler had made an absolutely incredible triple-save to keep us in the game. Afterwards Hassett almost fed White through but a desperate tackle took the ball away before she could unleash. Then from the resulting corner move, Hassett sent a header goalwards which was kinda fantastically tipped around the post. It might not have been going in but if it wasn’t then it was gonna bounce back off the frame for a simple tap in for Hassett or Erceg.

Finally we were making things happen. Betsy Hassett had a pretty immediate impact. It was a tightrope effort and Cameroon could have bagged a second on the break at pretty much any time but those are the risks we had to take. With ten minutes left it paid off. Katie Bowen swung in a danger ball from out on the right and we caught the break we couldn’t catch a few minutes earlier from those White/Hassett chances. Aurelle Awona, who had been so strong at the back there, simply lashed that ball into her own net. Left the keeper no chance. Left New Zealand every chance.

It was rough on Cameroon, who then had to shift from a defensive to an attacking mindset all of a sudden because that goal meant they were eliminated as it stood. It only took two and three quarters games but momentum was in our favour now. One more goal would do it for either team and this game rapidly turned into an end to end affair. A few times Cameroon left themselves as open at the back as we were forced to do. Wilkinson and Chance combined for the best of them, Wilko hesitating to shoot and then Chance unable to get her effort on target under pressure. Annalie Longo came on in the 88th minute, replacing Chance. Erceg won a few headers that didn’t quite bounce where they needed to, or weren’t anticipated well enough. Five minutes of stoppage time. Nayler pumped a free kick deep into the box with everyone forwards. Then Cameroon scored and it was already over.

What can you say? I’m proud that we risked defeat in order to try and win that thing. But I’m all shredded up inside that we weren’t able to win a game, that we didn’t make the knockouts, that we came to the World Cup in decent shape with two main objectives and didn’t achieve them and now can’t achieve them for another four years. A record fifteen games without a win at Women’s World Cups and the weight of that history… it’s something this team doesn’t deserve.

There are so many what-ifs here. What if we’d played Cameroon first? What if we’d held on for the draw against Netherlands? What if CJ Bott and Meikayla Moore hadn’t been injured? What if Olivia Chance, Rosie White, or Sarah Gregorius had scored those chances against Netherlands? What if we’d been drawn in a different group? What if Tom Sermanni had longer to work with this team?  

That last one feels like the most pertinent and having seen this team churn through so much preparation, four years’ worth of it in twelve months, it’s hard not to feel like the dramas of last year are still having an effect here. Not so much on the current performances or attitudes as the potential of all that wasted time.

It’s pretty raw and painful at this moment, knowing that it could have gone so much better. And it’s hard to see a team that has been through some disgraceful circumstances on the back of utter negligence and cluelessness at the hands of their own governing body – thankfully the worst of those culprits are gone now. Tom Sermanni looked frustrated afterwards, saying that if we’d only done a couple things that the team had been practicing a little better then we’d have done all that we wanted to and would be preparing for a game against England in the round of sixteen… which would have been a lot of fun after that 1-0 win a few weeks back.

But Olivia Chance, who had such a great World Cup coming back from an ACL injury and who should surely be getting a fair few calls from prospective clubs after her contract ran down at Everton, summed it all up best when she said that they need to bottle this feeling. Encapsulate all that devastating and keep it on a shelf somewhere, taking a sniff whenever things get tough to remind themselves that they don’t ever want to feel this way again. There are a few members of this team that are in their very early thirties. Most of them are in their mid-20s. The bulk of this team will be around at the next World Cup, almost all of them will be around for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. This absolutely sucks right now but if we don’t channel our failures into future success then we’ve wasted the best motivation we’ll ever get.

Clearly this is more than a mental thing though. The Ferns came up against three teams and were beaten three times because those other teams were the ones who had forwards that could beat a defender and break things wide open. We don’t have that kind of player and if we’re going to take our fate into our own hands at these major tournaments then we need to find a couple. We need to start developing them. It’s the only way.

It’s also worth mentioning that every single one of our strikers at France 2019 has an asterisk. Rosie White is the best of them and she spent a long time out with a broken foot last year and hasn’t played professionally in 2019 after opting to leave Chicago Red Stars. Sarah Gregorius has been playing domestically after briefly retiring a while back. Hannah Wilkinson is not fully fit after an ACL tear. Emma Kete came out of retirement for this squad having not played at the top level for a couple years. Paige Satchell is a winger, not a striker.

There’ll be more words to write in the coming days as the dust settles. For now though, it’s a feeling of emptiness. Of devastation. This World Cup was supposed to be a special one for the Football Ferns and instead we were served three different flavours of heartbreak. Ain’t that just the way that sport goes, sometimes? There’s no beauty without the ugliness. There’s no happiness without the pain. No triumph without failure. We’ve probably had enough of the pain for now to be totally honest but we’ll live in it for a while this one last time.

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