31 July 2012 will go down as a red letter day in the history of New Zealand football, as the Football Ferns defeated Cameroon 3-1 at the City of Coventry Stadium to become the country’s first-ever quarter-finalists at a FIFA tournament.
With results in earlier matches having gone their way, the Football Ferns took to the field knowing that victory would earn them a quarter-final clash with the reigning Olympic women’s football champions, Team USA.
To the delight of their loyal followers, including those present among the 11,425 at the ground, they finally graduated from tournament pretenders to genuine contenders on the world stage.
With such a daunting prospect dangling invitingly before them, the Football Ferns understandably began a little nervously against their African opponents, who needed to win by the proverbial hatful of goals to make the last eight themselves.
Accordingly, Cameroon, with nothing to lose, asserted themselves early on, with the pace of Ali Riley instrumental in thwarting the African team’s biggest danger, Gabrielle Onguene, in just the second minute of play, after she had been released down the right by Francine Zouga’s defence-splitting pass from midfield.
Gradually, the Football Ferns eased themselves into the task at hand, and in the seventeenth minute came desperately close to breaking the deadlock with their first attack of the game.
Ria Percival’s corner was cleared back to the fullback, who whipped in a wicked cross from the left which Abby Erceg was mere inches away from turning home in the six-yard box, the ball creeping inches past the far post, much to the relief of Cameroon goalkeeper Annette Ngo Ndom.
Six minutes later, the Football Ferns had another chance to open the scoring. Katie Hoyle’s ball forward to Amber Hearn was deftly flicked behind her by New Zealand’s leading scorer into the stride of Sarah Gregorius, who darted into the penalty area but was prevented from pulling the trigger by Bibi Medoua’s covering tackle.
It was becoming increasingly apparent that a combination of patient, passing football, ball speed and movement, and excellent set-piece execution would prove the downfall of Cameroon, but the Football Ferns were too often resorting to the tried and trusted long ball forward, which was playing into the hands of the African team.
Occasionally, however, this tactic worked, such as in the 32nd minute, when Percival sent one forward for Gregorius to pursue. Ngo Ndom read the danger and reacted quickly to thwart it, racing out of her penalty area to clear her lines.
But the Kiwis pressed again two minutes later, earning a free-kick which Percival drove in low into the danger area. It was cleared to Hoyle, lurking some twenty-five yards out from goal, from where she unleashed a dipping volley.
Renowned far more for her ruthless patrolling of the area in front of the back four than for her goalscoring prowess, Hoyle was only denied just her second goal for the Football Ferns by the combination of Ngo Ndom’s fingertips and the base of the post, off which the ball rebounded to safety.
While it remained 0-0, Cameroon still offered a threat to the Football Ferns’ hopes, and in the 38th minute, they came close to opening the scoring. Raissa Feudijo’s through ball found Adrienne Iven leading a counter-attack, and the striker had Erceg turning this way and that before unleashing a shot which Jenny Bindon smothered at her near post.
Straight away, the Football Ferns’ ‘keeper sparked a counter-attack which culminated in Annalie Longo - who has yet to score for her country - stinging the gloves of Ngo Ndom from twenty yards.
Three minutes later, Longo saw the ‘keeper denying her again. Percival’s corner was punched out by Ngo Ndom to the player who has appeared for her country in seven FIFA tournament finals, but Longo’s effort was deflected to safety by Cameroon’s custodian.
It meant another corner, and this time Percival delivered it to the far post. Lurking with intent was Football Ferns captain Rebecca Smith, who rose high to direct a downward header past all-comers and into Cameroon’s net two minutes before half-time, much to the delight of her team-mates and fans the world over - the Football Ferns were on their way to the quarter-finals.
Their new-found place among women’s football’s international elite was all but confirmed four minutes after half-time. Smith turned provider with a raking ball forward which sent Rosie White scampering away down the left.
The striker, afforded a rare start in place of the suspended Hannah Wilkinson, raced round the advancing Ngo Ndom and got to the byline before pulling the ball back into the penalty area. Racing back in cover was Ysis Sonkeng, who had the misfortune to see the sphere ricochet off her and bounce agonisingly into the net.
It certainly wasn’t an agonising sight from the Football Ferns’ perspective, and nor was the scoreboard - it now read 2-0. Time to cut loose, and Oceania’s champions duly set up camp in Cameroon’s half of the pitch.
Hoyle sent a twenty yarder hurtling over the bar before a quite exquisite piece of skill from Hearn released Gregorius down the right. She raced on towards the target but shot straight at Ngo Ndom in the 57th minute.
Cameroon responded by forcing their first corner of the match two minutes later. Half-time substitute Madeleine Ngono Mani picked out Iven with her delivery, and the striker directed a header onto the roof of Bindon’s net.
There could be no better way for the Football Ferns to respond to that threat by killing the game off as a contest, and in the 62nd minute they did just that with a splendidly conceived and executed goal.
Betsy Hassett sent White rampaging down the right, from where she delivered a gem of a pinpoint cross onto the line of the goal-area. Arriving on cue to meet it was Gregorius, who directed a superb angled downward header beyond Ngo Ndom and into the corner of the net - 3-0, and how!
The scorer had endured a hamstring tweak late in the first half, and her goal prompted Football Ferns coach Tony Readings to withdraw Gregorius from the fray, with the arrival of Hayley Moorwood - her 99th appearance in all matches for the national team - prompting Hearn to move into the forward line alongside White.
The duo went in search of a fourth goal in the 72nd minute, their runs to each post prompted by a slick one-two down the left between Ali Riley and Longo. The overlapping fullback’s cross targeted White’s run to the far post, but the ball arrived two strides ahead of the striker.
Three minutes later, the Football Ferns were given a shock - Cameroon pulled a goal back! What sparked it was a harmless looking angled cross which Bindon should have dealt with without incident, but a misjudgement afforded Ngono Mani to let fly from twenty yards.
Erceg blocked the shot for a corner, which Yvonne Leuko flighted into the penalty area. Iven rose above all-comers to head the ball forward, and Onguene, completely unmarked, gleefully back-headed the ball into the net from inside the six-yard box.
Visibly annoyed at having let Cameroon back into the contest, the Football Ferns swiftly sought to re-establish their three-goal cushion. Hearn had the ball in the net in the 77th minute, but Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen harshly ruled that she had knocked the ball from the hands of Ngo Ndom, who spilled a Percival free-kick under pressure from the striker.
Another opportunity presented itself six minutes from time. Moorwood released Hassett down the right at pace, and she pulled the ball back into the stride of White, who, from eight yards, scooped the ball over the bar.
Smith copped a war wound soon after following a clash of heads with Iven, but there was no wiping the smile from her face, nor anyone associated with the Football Ferns, for that matter, when the final whistle sounded a few minutes later, and their place in the quarter-finals - and New Zealand football history - had been confirmed.
An impromptu celebratory haka - reserved for very special achievements in this team’s history, such as this match and the dramatic 2-2 draw with Mexico at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals - was the icing on the cake of what, till now, ranks as the Football Ferns’ greatest success on the world stage.
Who’s to say it won’t be superseded by creating the biggest upset in the history of the Olympic Women’s Football Tournament when the Football Ferns take on the 2004 and 2008 gold medalists, Team USA, at St. James’ Park, Newcastle, from 1.30am on Saturday, NZ time?
Cameroon: Ngo Ndom; Leuko, Sonkeng, Ejangue (booked, 51), Medoua (booked, 21); Onguene, Feudijo, Zouga (Enganamouit, 78), Nchout (Ngono Mani, 46), Bella (Yango, 58 (booked, 76); Iven
Football Ferns: Bindon; Percival, Smith, Erceg, Riley; Hassett, Hoyle, Hearn, Longo (Yallop, 82); Gregorius (Moorwood, 65), White
Referee: Christiana Pedersen (Norway)