China may no longer be the dominant force they once were in the world of women’s football, but the scalp of the runners-up in both the 1996 Olympic Women’s Football Tournament and 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup remains much-prized, especially so if your previous twelve encounters against the “Steel Roses” have ended in defeat on foreign soil.
But the thirteenth meeting of the Football Ferns and their Pacific Rim rivals was on familiar ground to the home team, Centre Park in Mangere providing the stage on which Tony Readings’ Olympics-bound charges fashioned a famous 3-1 triumph, much to the delight of a healthy-sized crowd who witnessed one of the most memorable victories in the forty-year history of New Zealand women’s football.
1973 was the first year in which the women’s game was played throughout the nation, and in the ensuing four decades just thirty-three full internationals have been played on home turf.
Victories over Australia (twice, in 1991), the Korea Republic (1996) and a fistful of Oceania nations have been recorded in that time, but never before have the Football Ferns humbled a top-twenty-ranked nation in their own backyard.
Now they have. And what’s more, they achieved the feat in some style, playing with purpose, flair, energy and a tangible degree of self-belief which told all present that this was by no means a fluke.
Indeed, they could have taken the lead in just the seventh minute, Kirsty Yallop mistiming her header as she rose to meet a Ria Percival cross. Sixty seconds later, Katie Hoyle stung the gloves of Chinese goalkeeper Wang Fei from twenty-five yards, as the Football Ferns imposed themselves on opponents who are very much in rebuilding mode.
That Kiwi pressure paid dividends in the ninth minute. Amber Hearn’s delicious reverse pass played Sarah Gregorius in, and her shot struck the hand of Chinese defender Li Jiayue.
Appeals for handball were long and loud, but referee Steven Black failed to heed them. Instead, his attention was drawn to the one player in white who hadn’t stopped to appeal, but had rightly played to the whistle, and was ghosting in on the blindside of China’s defence, ball and goal at her mercy.
Hayley Moorwood has scored this sort of goal numerous times over the years. But this one was particularly special for New Zealand‘s most capped international - her ninth for her country, and the 100th of her storied career. Wang Fei stood no chance - 1-0.
China looked to respond through the prompting of captain Ma Xiaoxu, a player long regarded as the natural successor to Sun Wen as the “Steel Roses” brightest star. The dreaded ACL injury a couple of years ago has severely blunted her progress, however, although her eye for a quality pass remains undiminished.
There was no breaching the Football Ferns’ defensive barrier, however, with Abby Erceg in sound form alongside 31st birthday celebrant Rebecca Smith. Indeed, it was Jenny Bindon, behind them, who was the least impressive New Zealand player on the park, her uncertainty in dealing with passes from team-mates, as the Football Ferns looked to play out from the back, causing unnecessary palpitations aplenty.
She remains sound in the air, however, as proven in the twentieth minute when advancing well off her line to punch a Pang Fengyue free-kick to safety. Zhou Feifei lobbed the ball back into the danger zone, and after Lou Jiahui’s shot had been blocked in timely fashion by Hoyle, Zhou’s deft twenty yard effort narrowly cleared the diving Bindon’s crossbar.
Cue another charge from the Football Ferns, Percival leading it in the 24th minute. The fleet-footed fullback brought Gregorius into play, and her near post cross saw Emma Kete’s flick grabbed greedily by Wang Fei, who had earlier prevented a Percival cross from reaching its intended target, Moorwood’s head.
In the 25th minute, an untimely stumble by Liu Shukun was pounced on by Hoyle, who promptly fed Hearn. The Football Ferns’ prolific markswoman wasted little time in unleashing a twenty-five yarder towards the far corner of the net, but was quick to lead the applause as Wang Fei plunged to her left and, at full length, held onto the stinging drive - a super save!
A Chinese counter-attack, following this denial, was led by Zhou down the left. Her probing cross was headed away by Ali Riley, but only as far as Lou, whose twenty yard effort was smothered solidly by Bindon.
The Football Ferns’ response to this saw the home team doubling their lead in the 28th minute. Moorwood earned a corner on the right, which Percival whipped into the danger zone. Hearn, rising in between defenders, flicked it to the far post, where
Erceg was on hand to head the ball back into the danger zone.
The Chinese rearguard allowed the ball to bounce in the goalmouth, a blunder which usually proves fatal. And with a poacher like Gregorius lurking with intent, so it proved, the striker gleefully hooking the ball home from eight yards to the delight of the local faithful.
A 2-0 lead is often considered the most dangerous in football, and China looked to play on that idea inside the last ten minutes of the half, firstly when Zhang Rui’s shot, following Zhou’s corner, was deflected to safety - just!
Then, after a Yallop corner had ultimately culminated in Gregorius lashing a snapshot volley inches past the far post, the “Steel Roses” looked to make the most of another moment of uncertainty from Bindon, whose pass to Riley put the fullback under all sorts of pressure inside her own penalty area.
Unsurprisingly, considering she found herself with two opponents on top of her, the International Women’s Player of the Year was dispossessed by Wang Xin, who promptly fired in a low cross for Ma. Before she had a chance to take advantage, however, Hoyle stepped in to direct the ball back to Bindon, who, this time, promptly cleared her lines.
The second spell saw China probing for openings, most notably through Wang Xin and her replacement just shy of the hour mark, Han Peng. But Erceg and debutant Rebekah Stott - a half-time replacement for Smith - proved up to the task, and provided the foundation on which a Moorwood-inspired raid was built in the 56th minute.
Gathering the ball on the right, she worked the ball to Hoyle, whose deft switch of play invited Yallop to gallop through the inside left channel and unleash a twenty-five yarder which flew narrowly past the angle of post and bar.
Such was China’s dominance of possession in this period that the Football Ferns often - a little too often, it must be said - reverted to ye olde hopeful ball forward ploy, but to no avail. Slowly but surely, the “Steel Roses” made in-roads, and twenty minutes from time were awarded a free-kick just outside the penalty area.
Xu Yanlu’s delivery was well-flighted, and picked out the head of Zhang Rui, who rose between defenders to direct a header over Bindon and under the bar - 2-1, game on again!
As it turned out, scoring that goal was the worst thing China could have done, for from that instant, the Football Ferns were transformed - this was red rag to a bull territory, and the hosts were fair raging at having let one in!
Just two minutes after the goal, Bindon and substitute Anna Green combined to send Kete darting through in behind China’s defence. The striker deftly lobbed the advancing Wang Fei, only to see the ball strike the post as she followed in to make sure.
The timely intervention of Li thwarted Kete on this occasion, and prevented a certain goal, but there was simply no stopping the 77th minute shot which restored the Football Ferns’ two-goal advantage.
Yallop - a vibrant second half showing, so, too, Betsy Hassett during her half-hour cameo - set off on another marauding run at the Chinese defence, before linking with Kete and Gregorius, who touched the ball back behind her.
Arriving on cue was Hearn, whose unerring twenty yarder fair thundered into the bottom left-hand corner of Wang Fei’s net, the ball barely rising a foot above the ground as it streaked towards its destiny, leaving the delighted scorer to be engulfed by her colleagues as the crowd roared with joy.
There was no way back for China now. Indeed, they could have conceded more goals, with Li stepping in to deny Gregorius in the 81st minute as she attempted to lob Wang Fei.
Two minutes later, the post came to China’s rescue again, Hoyle and Kete combining to set up Hearn for a swerving fifteen yarder which crashed against the upright. 3-1 the score remained, however, much to the delight of the Football Ferns, as they recorded one of the greatest results in the history of New Zealand women’s football on the road to London 2012.
Football Ferns: Bindon; Percival (Green, 62), Smith (Stott, 46), Erceg, Riley; Moorwood (Hassett, 62), Hoyle (Longo, 85), Hearn, Yallop; Kete, Gregorius
China: Wang Fei; Pang Fengyue, Zeng Ying, Li Jiayue, Chen Miaomiao; Ren Guixin (Wang Lisi, 82), Liu Shukun (Wang Xin, 30) (Han Peng, 58), Zhang Rui, Zhou Feifei (Xu Yanlu, 67); Ma Xiaoxu (Gong Qian, 46), Lou Jiahui (Feng Yadi, 86)
Referee: Steven Black