Between the Footy Ferns and the OlyWhites It’s Time To Get Excited For Olympic Football

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Most countries don’t really care about Olympic football, that’s the reality. They’re not too bothered if they don’t qualify and they don’t send proper squads even if they do. Sometimes that’s not the case. Brazil certainly gave a damn when they were hosting the event in Rio 2016, winning the men’s gold and finishing fourth in the women’s. But usually that’s the way it goes. It’s the same thing with the Confederations Cup where the teams that qualify have qualified because they already won the tournaments that matter and the Confeds are just a bit of a kickaround to build into their World Cup preparation a year later (it helps that it’s always held in the next World Cup host nation, deliberately as a sort of dress rehearsal).

To be fair, that women’s Olympic football gold medal is more coveted than the men’s one since at least it’s a senior event while the men’s are an under-23 thing. Plus with more global balance on the female side of things it means the tournament remains more competitive even as the shrunken number of teams restricts how many European nations qualify. But yeah, Olympic football in general is a deep album cut compared to the lead single of the two World Cups. The tournaments themselves are flawed in format and they probably shouldn’t even be at the Olympics in the first place, they’re only really there at all for commercial reasons because of the popularity of the sport.

But dammit, New Zealand has a great opportunity here. Olympic footy might be a shrug to the big dogs but we have a unique situation where we get relatively easy passages to qualify for both events and if we’re there then we might as well do our Hillary-Climbing-Everest best to take it as far as we bloody well can. The Olympics are considered a major tournament for the Football Ferns and their history of getting results at major tournaments is kinda disappointing. Following on from three defeats in a very demoralising World Cup campaign, a World Cup campaign that was compromised in a few different ways from unfortunate injuries (Meikayla Moore, Amber Hearn, CJ Bott, and a less-than-fully-fit Hannah Wilkinson for example) to the absolute carnage that was the Andreas Heraf thing and all the fallout from that, the chance to make some amends twelve months later is a very tasty one.

Tom Sermanni came in and did some great things leading into that World Cup, showing impressive signs most notably with a win over eventual semi-finalists England in a friendly, but then when it mattered the Ferns fell well short of expectations. Not everything Sermanni has done has been fully agreeable (but, you know, way better than what preceded him) and after that World Cup there still have to be reservations about the direction of this team… but to be honest the lingering fact of the matter is that they simply didn’t have time to be at their best. It wasn’t just Heraf either, Tony Readings stepped down in 2017 so they went through three coaches in the three years between Olympics and World Cup. One more year with this system in place and we’ll get a much better indication of where we’re really at.

So, yes, you’d better believe that the Footy Ferns are going to be taking the Olympics – which they qualified for along with the World Cup by winning the 2018 Nations Cup – extremely seriously and not only because crucial funding could be on the line as well. This is a very experienced squad and probably the strongest we’ve ever had. They know that it’s not enough to keep coming away with participation certificates at these big shows, they need to be winning games and showing the world what the women of Aotearoa are capable of. Which won’t be easy at all. With only 12 teams in the tournament it’s arguably a harder task than performing at the World Cup, so far the other qualifiers for Tokyo 2020 are: Japan, Brazil, Great Britain, Netherlands, and Sweden. But what better way to make the world take notice, right?

But it ain’t only the ladies getting ready to step it up. The U23 fellas, helmed by Des Buckingham, have a fair bit of momentum in their favour following on from the U20 World Cup lads and how they performed at that tournament earlier in the year. There’s likely to be a large chunk of that squad that take part in qualifying through Oceania along with some of the best and brightest of the next couple age groups up as well. The fact is that as well as that U20 side did, they fell short of doing anything unprecedented. Losing in the first knockout round is something the previous two U20 cycles achieved as well and just because they took it all the way to penalties doesn’t change that. There’s unfinished business here we have a golden opportunity to make amends. Making amends… sounds familiar, doesn’t it? These two Olympic footy tournaments might not be as prestigious for other nations but for New Zealand they come at a crucial and convenient time.

Incredibly excitingly, Buck’s U23s are going to take on the Australian U23s on Friday 6 September and Monday 9 September in a couple friendlies in Sydney – two weeks before the Oceania tournament begins in Fiji. There was already a group that went to the Pacific Games (and won gold against senior nations) earlier in the year although player commitments meant that was a bit of a makeshift squad, though a nice launching platform with nine members of that group also in the squad to face Aussie. A squad to face Aussie which looks pretty useful, tell you what…

Obviously not everyone is going to be available. A few names that will come into focus for the Olympics themselves if we qualify, folks who are eligible include Sarpreet Singh, Joe Bell, Nando Pijnaker, Dane Ingham, Moses Dyer, Henry Cameron, and a fair few Wellington Phoenix fellas too. Callum McCowatt, Libby Cacace, Ben Waine, and Callan Elliot are all eligible as well as a raft of academy players. Not sure why none of the Nix players were included considering it doesn’t clash with their season but okay, so it goes. The Australian squad is largely stocked with A-League players but there are no Welly Nix players there either (Reno Piscopo in particular is definitely in the mix). A few other American uni folks might be in contention down the line. Plus none of the Ole x Torslanda crew are here (although Just and Wilkins from Helsingor both are) and, along with Pijnaker, Owen Parker-Price and Dom Woolridge should each be in strong contention too.

But that’s all hypothetical at the moment. It feels likely the squad that goes to Fiji will be very similar to the one that plays Australia, and it’s a squad with a lot of funk to it. There are eight players backing up from that U20 squad and ten from the 2017 U20 squad – with a couple being double ups. A few locally based fellas as well which is always promising to see, while it’s great to have guys like Woud, McGarry, Lewis and Mata involved here amidst their European club commitments. It’s a FIFA window the week of these games so that helps… might get some clashes for the OFC qualifiers afterwards though which would require a few call-ups. Also, Woud and Lewis have been dealing with injuries recently so don’t be completely shocked if a couple additional faces find their way into the squad for the Aussie games too. And, yes, of course we also get the delightful slice of nominative determinism that is Ollie Whyte playing for the OlyWhites.

Also wanna make mention of one fella in particular here because while basically all of these dudes are on the way up, players reaching for their future potential, Myer Bevan is a little more experienced and he’s in a little more of a state. Released by Vancouver Whitecaps after struggling to hit the back of the net for their (admittedly rubbish) USL side, he has since missed out contracts after trialling with a Polish second division side (for context that’s where Themi Tzimopoulos currently is) and also the Wellington Phoenix. Currently he’s battling away for Western Springs in the Northern League and, by accounts, doing okay but nothing special. Those setbacks are all understandable in an individual setting but combined they present a concerning pattern. Bevan was the standout player at the 2017 U20s and he rode a bit of a wave after that – he’s a full international after all – but over the last 18 months other fellas have surpassed him from that squad and beyond. Great opportunity for him to put his name back in lights here. He’s only 22 years old after all.

Oh hey and lest we forget that last time around the men didn’t qualify for the Olympics because of a cock-up of biblical proportions within NZF headquarters as the notorious eligibility scandal reared it’s devilish head. One more reason why making sure we get there this time around is a Very Big Deal. Also it’s not like we have a senior All Whites programme to care about until November either. So that’s where we are now. Olympic football, mate. Get excited.

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