Ali Riley and Abby Erceg playing for the Football Ferns at the Olympics (Getty Images)

Our World Cup football team is better than you think

The Football Ferns are about to play their first game at the Women’s Football World Cup in France. How deep into the tournament could they go? Alex Braae has a cheat sheet.

What’s all this then? 

The beautiful game, the world’s game, poetry on grass, and so on. It’s football, it’s a World Cup, and New Zealand has a team at it that could do very well indeed.

Oh? I thought we were bad?

The men’s team, also known as the All Whites, isn’t particularly good by world standards. But the Football Ferns actually are quite good. They tend to hover around the top 20 in the world rankings, and have a squad increasingly experienced and hardened by competing in the top club tournaments around the world.

But this time last year the women’s team was definitely bad, right?

Not bad as such, but their last coach made them seem a lot worse than they actually were. He was an Austrian guy called Andreas Heraf, who insisted that the team play in a grim, ultra-defensive style, aiming to concede as few goals as possible and maybe just sneak one in at the other end. The nadir of this approach was a major friendly match in Wellington against Japan – an exceedingly rare chance for home fans to see the Football Ferns – where the tactical approach taken meant the game played like dogshit.

Bet that was unpopular.

It really was. In the aftermath, Heraf made comments along the lines of knowing the strategy would be a losing one, but that the 3-1 result was a lot less bad than it could have been. It inspired a huge amount of fury from the football community, and underlined why some top players just had no interest in playing for their country while Heraf was in charge. He wasn’t for much longer.

But things are better now?

Much, much better. For one, the hugely important Abby Erceg is back after basically boycotting in protest against Heraf’s approach. The team is still very much defensively minded, which there’s nothing wrong with, but it’s more like using defence as a strength to build from, rather than the only possible way to play. And recent results have been relatively positive. Over the course of this year, the Football Ferns have won as many games as they’ve lost, including taking down the likes of Argentina, Norway, Mexico and (this one is huge) England.

Who else in the team should we keep an eye on?

A huge chunk of the squad now plays overseas for professional or semi-pro teams, which has hugely raised the bar for places. In terms of goalscoring ability, it’s probably Rosie White to watch out for – a former Liverpool, Boston and Chicago forward who has scored 24 times for New Zealand. Sarah Gregorius is sharp and deadly in front of goal too. Apart from that Erin Naylor in goal is very tough to get past, and captain Ali Riley will add further solidity to the defence. Unfortunately, defender Meikayla Moore has been ruled out with injury.

So how far could they go?

That’s a trickier question. The Football Ferns have never made it out of the pool at a World Cup, but that looks really likely to change this time around. In each of the six groups, the top two teams go through, along with the best four third placed teams across the tournament. New Zealand has Canada (very good team) the Netherlands (also a very good team) and Cameroon (not bad, not great either) to get past. US data-nerd website FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Football Ferns a 67% chance of advancing at the time of writing, but only a 1% chance of making the final, which gives an indication of how tough the knockouts will get. A possible scenario that would see them almost certain to qualify would be draws in their first two games, followed by a win against Cameroon. But to put that in context, the Football Ferns have never actually won a game at a World Cup.

So which team will win?

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Wait and see, but if you need to put money on these things, the USA is always a good bet. They have an exceptionally strong College system for Women’s Football, and a professional league that is the envy of the world. Put it like this – crowds at National Women’s Soccer League games always get into the thousands, with the Portland Thorns having a season average of about 17,000 people per game last year. They’re really quite astonishing figures.

Apart from the USA, major contenders include France, Germany and England. Canada have got their campaign underway with a win over Cameroon, and Brazil have thrashed Jamaica to send a warning to the rest of the world, and our old mates Australia have managed to blow a lead and lose to Italy, thanks to an injury time goal.

The final word:

Games are going to be on overnight, with the first Football Ferns match against the Netherlands on tonight at 1am. It’ll be well worth staying up for.



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