New Zealand’s Football Ferns came within five minutes of pulling off the first shock of the 2012 Olympic Women’s Football Tournament at Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium on July 28, a late Cristiane strike sparing Brazil’s blushes as the South Americans edged their immense Kiwi counterparts 1-0.
A draw was the very least Tony Readings’ charges deserved from this match following a performance which ranks as one of the finest this fast-developing side has produced since the first seeds of this team were sown in 2006.
To a woman, they gave their all and then some in the Cardiff sunshine, frustrating Brazil at every turn as they worked their socks off for each other, and gave the fancied medal prospects a real run for their money in front of 30,103 fans.
Captain Rebecca Smith set the tone of the Football Ferns’ display in the first minute, delivering a crunching tackle on five-time FIFA Women’s Player of the Year Marta which lift Brazil’s skipper in a great deal of pain.
Within a couple of minutes, however, the footballing legend was back on the park and moving around with all the freedom of a spring lamb, and to prove the point, produced a superb twist and turn movement in the sixth minute to escape the attentions of two defenders upon receipt of a pass from Maurine.
Marta then sprayed the ball across to the well-performed Fabiana, who slipped the ball into the stride of Francielle, surging through from midfield. The midfielder shot tamely at Jenny Bindon, as did Cristiane two minutes later, after Smith and Abby Erceg had forced the dangerous striker to check her stride after Formiga had picked out her team-mate.
No player has scored more goals in Olympic women’s football than Cristiane, and she led a slick fourteenth minute Brazilian counter-attack which culminated in a pass for her striking partner. But Marta was unable to capitalise on the opportunity, Smith stepping in and calmly playing the ball back to Bindon, who dealt with a difficult situation with the minimum of fuss.
Cristiane then unleashed a couple more shots from outside the area, the first after creating space for herself between Erceg and Katie Hoyle, who was at her tenacious best throughout this fearless Football Ferns display.
The Kiwis were more than holding their own at this point, and were looking to engineer the odd opening themselves - it wasn’t solely a stoic defensive display by any means. Yes, they were working like Trojans right across the park to contain the threats posed by their opponents, but just before the half-hour mark, the Football Ferns came close to breaking the deadlock - twice!
The first occasion saw Bindon belt the ball downfield, which resulted in confusion between Brazilian defenders Bruna and Erika. Suddenly, Sarah Gregorius was galloping through, a player who copped a right royal battering from her opponents throughout, but typified New Zealand’s performance by continually coming back for more.
Brazilian goalkeeper Andreia was alert to this 27th minute threat, and dashed off her line to clear, but only as far as Hannah Wilkinson, who was unable to belt the ball back over the ‘keeper’s head and into the untended net by the presence of Renata Costa, who averted the danger.
Back came the Football Ferns, Betsy Hassett’s refusal to let a loose ball fall into Brazilian hands rewarded by Ali Riley’s supporting run. The fullback stood up Fabiana a treat and swept past her before whipping a cross to the far post, where Andreia plucked the ball from the a split-second before Wilkinson, its intended target, arrived in an effort to head home from close range.
No sooner had Brazil regained possession from this attack then they handed it back to New Zealand, although it required Percival’s persistence to create the opening, as the fullback prevented a stray pass from crossing the touchline.
Cue a pass to Wilkinson, who powered her way past Bruna before firing in a cross which the fast-arriving figure of Gregorious was only just unable to get on the end of as the ball zoomed across the face of goal.
Brazil responded to these threats with some of their own, particularly in the minutes immediately before half-time. Amber Hearn deflected a Formiga drive to safety following Marta’s corner, while a Fabiana cross picked out the head of Renata Costa, but she could only direct her header straight at Bindon.
The Football Ferns began the second half brightly, but it was Brazil who provided the first threat on goal, in the 49th minute. Marta’s cheeky back-heel afforded Fabiana ample space on the right in which to whip in a cross beyond the far post. Maurine arrived on cue, but her finish was woeful.
Marta, who was having to drop deeper and deeper in an effort to get on the ball and try to influence the game - score a tactical triumph for Football Ferns coach, Tony Readings - and Fabiana combined again three minutes later, the flank player picking out Cristiane with a cross which the striker met with a glancing header.
She was unable to direct her effort on target, however, prompting Brazilian coach Jorge Barcellos to try a change of personnel in an effort to swing the game Brazil’s way.
The introduction of Thais Guedes made little difference, however, although she did threaten in the 64th minute. Erceg and Percival combined to thwart her pursuit of the ball, however, with the central defender’s clearance being latched onto by Marta. Her angled cross struck the prone figure of Thais and ricocheted to safety.
The Kiwis’ resilience was frustrating Brazil, and they started to pose a few threats in attack as the game entered the final twenty minutes. Hearn unleashed a couple of wayward efforts, while Erceg’s ball forward for Hayley Moorwood saw the midfielder thwarted by both Renata Costa and Maurine as she looked to surprise the latter and poke the ball past the advancing Andreia in the 71st minute.
Three minutes later, a Thais free-kick was punched off the head of Fabiana by Bindon, who came through a throng of players to clear her lines, after which Moorwood made way for Kirsty Yallop, who was instantly in the thick of the action.
Indeed, the newcomer set up a potential match-winning goal just two minutes after coming on. Hearn flicked a Percival throw-in on to Yallop, who angled a ball across the defence for Wilkinson to latch onto. She let fly from the edge of the penalty area, only to see Andreia smother her 79th minute shot. Had it been a rising angled drive …
Wilkinson had been harshly booked four minutes prior by the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final referee, Bibiana Steinhaus, a card which means the striker will be suspended for the Football Ferns’ final group game, against Cameroon.
Hoyle also picked up a booking five minutes from time for a foul on Fabiana - another player to cop more than her fair share of knocks in this match. This infringement was to have consequences of another kind for the Football Ferns, as from Marta’s free-kick, Brazil scored the goal New Zealand didn’t deserve to concede.
The striker’s flighted delivery was headed out by Erceg before Bindon could reach it. The ‘keeper continued her charge off her line as the ball dropped to Cristiane, whose deft lob over the approaching ‘keeper left her stranded as it arced towards the target at an awkward height.
Both Hearn and Erceg leapt to head it to safety as the ball dropped towards the net, and while the defender got her head to the sphere, she was unable to keep it out - 1-0 Brazil, with four minutes remaining.
The time which remained saw the desperately unlucky Football Ferns pressing for a dramatic equaliser, but it was not to be. A last-gasp free-kick from Percival caused Brazil problems aplenty, but Ester calmly tidied things up while facing her own goal, and as she cleared the ball, the final whistle sounded, leaving the beaten team to ponder upon what might have been.
What is is that their quest to become the first New Zealand team to qualify for the quarter-finals of a FIFA tournament now rests on their convincingly defeating Cameroon in their final group game on Wednesday morning, NZ time. And because theirs is the late game, the Football Ferns will know exactly what they have to do in order to make history, a reward which their efforts in this match richly deserve.
Brazil: Andreia; Bruna, Erika, Renata Costa; Fabiana (Daiane, 88), Francielle (Thais Guedes, 57), Formiga, Ester, Maurine; Marta, Cristiane
Football Ferns: Bindon; Percival, Smith, Erceg, Riley; Moorwood (Yallop, 77), Hoyle (booked, 85), Hearn, Hassett (Longo, 88); Gregorius, Wilkinson (booked, 75) (White, 81)
Referee: Bibiana Steinhaus (Germany)