What’ll It Take For The Football Ferns To Get To That Next Level?

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It’s a long World Cup when you don’t make it out of the group stages – Abby Erceg is already back training with the North Carolina Courage and would have played on the weekend had it not been for a minor niggle and this was before the World Cup semi-finals had even happened. Safe to say that Abby and the rest of them would have liked to delay that NWSL return a little longer. This World Cup was billed as one that the Football Ferns would create history at, with a first ever win at this tournament and a first ever place in the knockout rounds. But that didn’t happen. Three defeats from three and they were unceremoniously out of the country before they’d even had a chance to digest it all.

Not kidding about the unceremonious thing either, here’s Ali Riley from her 90min column: “I was so heartbroken, and you have no time to decompress in France, sum up the tour and say goodbye – you're really forced to get out of town right away. We had the game, people were commiserating with their families, then at 8am the next morning we were on the train to Paris and everyone was flying off in different directions.”

So where did it all go wrong? That’s the thing, it didn’t even go that wrong. This was the strongest team we’ve sent ever to a World Cup and they got a draw that initially looked to be pretty favourable, getting three teams that we’ve performed well against in major tournaments in the past: losing just 1-0 to Netherlands while drawing 0-0 with Canada last time and beating Cameroon 3-1 in the 2012 Olympics. That was a long time ago, though. We’ve improved since then but so have those three teams. The Ferns played as well as they could in terms of application, in terms of building around their strengths, in terms of tactics and selections… but those things only put you in the mix. You then need a little sprinkling of luck and execution on top of that and those things proved elusive.

The Ferns just never seemed to get those lucky breaks. Conceding right at the end against Netherlands was a kicker. If we’d held on for a draw there in what was the best team performance of the three then that’s some momentum to work with. Get that snowball rolling down the hill. Instead they suffered a ruthless defeat and had to travel across the country to be outclassed by Canada before losing a must-win at the death to Cameroon. The loss is irrelevant, we only conceded because we were busting for the win, but with each game it just felt like we were starting from scratch.

Chuck in injuries to Meikayla Moore and CJ Bott and there was another thing we couldn’t really afford. The other one that nobody much has mentioned is Amber Hearn too. She’s at the other end of her career these days but she was pretty effective at the last Olympics and if she’d been fit then that’s another attacking weapon, and an extremely experienced one, we might have utilised. Also can’t help but wonder about the non-selections of Katie Rood and Aimee Phillips either, while we’re on the topic of a lack of firepower. Hey and where was our cheeky VAR handball penalty, for example? Seemed like everybody else got one.

This team had the defensive side of things on lock. Abby Erceg and Rebekah Stott were outstanding and they won’t get the worldwide credit they deserve for that because we conceded too many goals but that’s what happens when you’re under constant pressure. They had to do so much defending. Erin Nayler was outstanding in goal too. But we knew going into this thing that scoring goals was the tricky bit and this squad was just too imbalanced in favour of the backline. Tom Sermanni tried to mix it up with his formations but nothing seemed to work. We scored one goal in three games and it was an own goal with ten minutes left in our last one. That ain’t the way, my friends.

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I’ve had a few days to reflect while spending time with my family on all that has been and gone. The past few months has been an absolute rollercoaster. Following the build up to the World Cup and the games in both the USA and England I felt in the best place physically, mentally and tactically I had in a while and felt confident in myself and the teams ability to be able to go on and achieve big things at this World Cup. After rupturing my achilles my dream vanished. But I was able to remain in the environment alongside the team, and live the experience through them. It was challenging mentally but one I am beyond thankful to have been able to do as in many cases and understandably the player is sent home. Heartbreakingly our journey ended after our final group game. I just wanted to say thank you to my ferns and the staff, to my family and friends, to everybody back home for the support and love you have shown me through this injury but also to the team throughout this World Cup For me the fire within is absolutely roaring. This team has so much to give and show...and I believe this was witnessed in our win against England and the teams performance against Netherlands. I’ll be back better and stronger than before and so will this team. We’ve grown exponentially under Tom. I can’t wait to see what we can achieve with a bit more time heading into the Olympics next year • Are you behind us? Coz we’re gonna need you. ———————————————————————————— 🖊 @hwilkin17 @wilkscraft 📸 @currfer @madewildly #Mouse2.0 #FootballFerns #ForTheFern #EarnTheFern #Tokyo2020

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Of course it’s easy now to look at the end result and say that it’s no better than they did last time, worse in fact, and then freak out about the lack of progress. But that’s short-sighted. The end results don’t always reflect the process, certainly not at the start, and there’s no doubt that this team are heading in the right direction – just look at the pre-tournament wins over England and Norway. If Tom Sermanni had longer than 12 months to iron things out with this team, really targeting tactics and creative outlets instead of still auditioning players for the squad a few months out from the tournament then that’s yet another thing that could’ve worked out better.

But moving from a widescreen establishing shot to a close-up now, it’s pretty obvious where we need to improve and that’s going forwards. It’s not enough just to throw on an extra striker, we need players that can dominate the midfield and we need players to can break a game open with creativity. We’ve got all the hard workers, New Zealand churns those out all the time in every sport. But game breakers are a different matter… who in this squad would you back to beat a defender one on one? Yeah, probably none of them. That’s not a criticism of the players we do have, they’ve all got their strengths and weaknesses, but we need that extra variety to take it to the next level.

Paige Satchell is a great prospect. She’s not there yet, right now she’s all pace and the rest of her game is like those defenders she leaves in her wake trying to catch up. But she’s signed with SC Sand in the Bundesliga next season and if her game comes on as quick as Meikayla Moore’s has in that league then that’s something to get excited about. Olivia Chance had an excellent World Cup despite minimal match fitness coming into it. She could be one who steps it up even more if she rebounds with a decent next club contract. Rosie White’s next destination will be one to watch out for as well (add to the Less Than Ideal list the number of players who either weren’t currently in pro systems or weren’t getting a lot of games for their clubs coming into the WWC).

It’s the wrong way to go about it trying to work backwards from the end product though. We’ve got to think deeper than that to ensure that we’re creating our own Sam Kerr and Vivianne Miedema and Alex Morgan along with our next Abby Erceg and Erin Nayler and Ria Percival. There’s a fair bit of mentality and culture involved in all that which is up to local coaches, clubs, and organisations to try and implement but, let’s be honest here, that’s not really where world class attacking players are going to emerge from. Even the FFDP can only really be a stepping stone. If you want to be the best then you’ve got to be competing day in and day out amongst the best.

When the quarterfinals of this World Cup rolled around there were seven European nations and the USA. That was a bit of a shame because the uniqueness of a World Cup is that it brings nations from all over the globe together in competition and here we pretty much just had the Euros + USA. But that’s not some fluke; it happened because that’s where the money is going.

It’s the same at every level of football: the money is always a determining factor. The strongest clubs in men’s football these days have reached the point of being almost too big and too rich to fail. Leicester City were just a delightful anomaly. Hence why Italy and Spain were the surprise packages of this tournament: Italy getting this good so soon after Juventus finally sparked up their women’s team and immediately started winning trophies? Spain getting this good after a half decade of sustained investments from Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in their women’s teams, with Barcelona making the Champions League final this past year? Those things aren’t just connected, they’re directly related.

Looking around the other continents, for the first time ever we had two African nations in the second round. But that’s as much to do with the format as anything – Nigeria and Cameroon were both third-place finishers (and the lowest two 3P qualifiers). Elsewhere in the knockouts, China were pretty disappointing for a team with a decent history in this tournament and there’s a worry that their hugely domestic based squad is falling behind. Japan were unlucky not to progress past the Netherlands but eventually a young team in a bit of a rebuilding phase lacked the killer instinct to put their chances away when they arrived, leaving themselves vulnerable to that late penalty winner. Debate the VAR call all you want but Japan should have already been leading.

Then you’ve got Australia in all their craziness, the goals drying up against a solid and efficient European defence from Norway before they went out on penalties. Brazil did give France a good go but eventually they left the tournament with Marta making a call to arms to Brazilian girls to get inspired and lead the next generation. Canada missed a penalty that could’ve done the trick but were surprisingly lacking in potency against Sweden – another Scandinavian team with a bloody useful defence (and goalie in Hedvig Lindahl too), plus the Swedes went on to beat Germany so can’t complain. Even the USA had trouble getting past Spain 2-1 in the R16 – Megan Rapinoe with two penalties and at least one of them was debatable.

Those last five nations all have strong footy histories with their women’s teams and all five fell to sturdy European teams. This is a pivotal time for women’s football as it cracks into the mainstream (which, in our capitalistic hellhole, mainstream = profitability). The fear moving forwards is that the nations that can just throw money at the game are going to get such a head-start on the rest of the field that they simply run away with it. That Euros + USA thing could become the norm for the next decade because their potential for growth is so much easier accessed.

Some of these teams are not like the others. England, France, Italy, Germany, Spain… lots of money to go around there – those are the sites of the big five European men’s leagues after all. The two Scandinavian teams, on the other hand, don’t have the same reliable cash-flow. Their leagues are pretty strong. There are some quality players there. But it’s not as financially stable as the rest of them and part of their success is the benefit of proximity (for players at club level and for international competition). Part is also that those countries have a long history with international women’s footy. Sweden hosted the 1995 World Cup (the second ever WWC) and made the final in 2003. They finished third in 1991 and 2011. Norway won the 1995 World Cup and were runners-up in 1991. Fourth place in 1999 and 2007.

What’s all this got to do with New Zealand? Well, we can’t compete financially with what’s going on in the big European countries or in the USA. But perhaps we can leech off of it, why not. Right now the Ferns are growing towards being a reliably competitive team in these events, we’ve had the benefit of qualifying through Oceania for a long time now and that’s a rare advantage in our favour (you could argue undeserved, though we’d be pretty competitive in Asia to be fair, good enough to qualify ahead of Thailand). But we won’t continue to grow at the rate necessary by resting on this alone so it’s really pleasing to have seen so many kiwi players popping up in some of those big leagues in recent times. The FFDP has made that a priority and they’re doing holy work there (shout out to Gemma Lewis, new FFDP manager). Long may it continue because the single most influential thing that can happen here for the Ferns is to get as many players as possible playing big minutes for big clubs in big leagues around the world.

The English Super League is obviously the ideal one. The English game has exploded over the last couple years but currently only Ali Riley and Ria Percival are on the books with a top flight club - Riley at Chelsea, and she’s not been getting regular starts there yet (an injury early in the season didn’t help matters, nor did Swedish left back Jonna Andersson), and Percival at promoted Spurs having just transfered from West Ham (having taken them to an FA Cup final). In recent times we’ve also seen Anna Green, Olivia Chance, and Katie Rood playing in the WSL and that’s just since the Super League rebranding.

Germany has been a happy home for plenty and Meikayla Moore and Paige Satchell will both be playing Bundesliga next season. Erin Nayler is one of the best keepers in the French league with Bordeaux. Katie Rood spent a season with Juventus (and is now at Lewes in the second tier of England). Amber Hearn would have played for Logroño in Spain last season but for her knee injury. Let’s not overlook Abby Erceg and Katie Bowen over in the NWSL in America either. Rosie White and Rebekah Stott were there in 2018 too, but have since moved on. Pretty much all of our most important players are represented in this paragraph. Once again: not a coincidence.

The Ferns can look at the various bits of bad luck that they had along the way at this World Cup and feel like fate was against them. They can also look at the little moments they failed to own and feel like they let it slip themselves, some of the missed chances and the late goals conceded, and that all it’ll take is a sharpening up of their own performance levels. Both of those things are accurate… but we’re less at the mercy of ill fortune and a benchmark of perfection if we’re going out there with a wider pool of technically advanced footy players who are used to competing against the best in the world. We don’t have the resources to compete with those environments but we can still benefit from them by cramming those leagues full of kiwi stars.

Right now the focus shifts to the Olympics and with Tom Sermanni committed through until the end of that one there’s some desperately needed continuity here which should reap benefits. This World Cup might feel like a wasted opportunity but it’s only that if we throw everything aside and start again. There’s still confidence and belief amongst the Ferns that they can do something at Tokyo 2020. Nothing drastic needs to change.

The Ferns are so close. The results of their games don’t necessarily reflect just how close they were. All it could take is a healthy injection of creativity but that’ll have to happen organically. However we also can’t afford to get complacent compared to the growth of the game elsewhere… or worse: revert to that ol’ kiwi inferiority complex. Heading into these things expecting to be the plucky underdogs is how you end up settling for less than your own potential. That wasn’t the case here though, this team genuinely expected to do something special, but we were missing a couple crucial elements that could have given us more control over our own fate. Next time, hopefully, we won’t have that problem.

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