On September 5, twenty-one young women and their management team took off for China, to represent New Zealand at this country's first senior World Cup Finals in sixteen years.
They headed north with their eyes wide open. Without exception, this was wildest dreams come true stuff, something very special which only a select few, in any country, get to experience - the chance to compete alongside the world's footballing elite, with the game's ultimate prize just six wins away ...
For the youngest team at the tournament, representing a country which contested the inaugural Women's World Cup Finals in 1991 and had, in its Oceania confederation, played second fiddle to Australia ever since, recording those six victories weren't even a consideration.
On average, the leading women's soccer-playing nations take part in approximately fifteen “A” internationals per year, every year. New Zealand? We played exactly that number of cap-earning fixtures between November 1998 and October 2006, since when we've embarked on something of a crash course in international football, in an effort to try and catch up with the rest of the world.
These are the sorts of cold hard facts and “big picture” outlook which short-sighted, sensationalist reactionaries such as John Matheson don't even begin to contemplate when seizing the opportunity to run down the game in Godzone, as said scribe did in his Sunday News column of September 23.
Were we to apply the points he raises in that article to a code about which I heard not a jot in China (Sheer bliss, I can assure you!!), even though its version of the World Cup started well before and will finish long after the one which was televised in over 200 countries in September …
But I digress. Simply proving ourselves to be competitive and credible opponents when facing our group rivals, Brazil (ranked eighth in the world going into these Finals), Denmark (sixth) and the host nation (eleventh), was New Zealand's prime objective at China 2007.
Anything else would be a bonus, although with the benefit of that wonderful world which is hindsight, it would have been interesting to have approached the China game playing two up front, given the pressure the host nation was under in that match to progress.
That would have meant being a player lighter in our rearguard, of course, and as the Chinese proved with their second goal, they are merciless when it comes to exploiting gaps. Having more such gaps to exploit would have compromised the “competitive and credible” approach New Zealand employed …
The merits of both approaches are perfectly valid, but only one was applied in China, and it is that upon which this review is based.
As we know, bonuses weren't forthcoming in this ancient yet swiftly modernising land, but by Godfathers, the Football Ferns gave their all and then some in an effort to achieve their twin objectives of competitiveness and credibility.
Facing Brazil first up was always going to be a tough challenge. Finding themselves a goal down to a Daniela strike just ten minutes in made it harder still for the Football Ferns.
Naturally enough, the pundits, having written off the Kiwis as cannon-fodder before the tournament, were seen exchanging knowing glances, sitting back in their seats in anticipation of an avalanche of goals, and a scoreline which would seriously threaten the Women's World Cup record set just two nights previously, when holders Germany thumped Argentina 11-0.
Come the half-time whistle in Wuhan, those knowing glances had long since turned into concerned frowns among many of the 33,500 present, because the scoreline still read Brazil 1, New Zealand 0, and the team in all white genuinely believed that they could get something from the game.
Yes, it had largely been a rearguard action - it was never going to be anything else in this match against a team boasting eight professionals, one of whom, Marta, happens to be the reigning FIFA Women's Player of the Year, and ultimately emerged as this tournament's best player and leading goalscorer.
Cristiane doubled Brazil's advantage in the 54th minute, and a double-strike from Marta, sandwiching a Renata Costa screamer, saw the scoreline blow out to 5-0 in the last seventeen minutes, as the fearless Football Ferns faltered in the final stages - to a woman, they were running on fumes with ten minutes to go, having given everything they had in an effort to contain a team bound for the runners-up spot.
Coach, John Herdman, reflected afterwards, “It was quite heart-breaking for the players, who gave everything they could today. We lived with and matched Brazil for long periods, but the late goals blew the scoreline out, and didn't reflect the game”.
Captain, Rebecca Smith, chimed in. “At half-time, while we were fairly satisfied with our first half efforts, we knew that we could improve in the second half, and we still had to fight for 45 minutes.
“I'm really proud of the step we took in our development tonight. We've got huge potential with this team to grow. We didn't leave anything out there tonight - blood, sweat and tears apart - so this game represents a huge step for us. It's the best by far that we've played”.
New Zealand's first-up scoreline was given some sense of perspective on the next night of action in the group, when Brazil simply destroyed China to such an extent that the “Canarinhas” were treating the “Steel Roses” with absolute contempt throughout the last twenty minutes. The final 4-0 scoreline flattered the host nation - their humiliation could have been far greater.
Prior to that match, the Football Ferns had locked horns with Denmark, just as they had in the inaugural Women's World Cup Finals sixteen years ago. Back then, the Danes prevailed 3-0, but here in Wuhan, 38,000 fans saw the Kiwis deny the group's highest-ranked team throughout the first forty-five minutes, the sheer defiance of Oceania's champions having long since endeared them to the Chinese public.
They were cheering them wildly come the interval, with the scoreboard reading Denmark 0, New Zealand 0 - and the Kiwis boasting competitiveness and credibility in spades thanks to their Trojan-like efforts.
They continued to do so throughout the second spell, despite having their hearts broken in a five-minute spell just after the hour mark, during which two Katrine S. Pedersen free-kicks broke the Football Ferns' stout resistance. Her first delivery ripped into the top corner of the net, while the second was headed home by Cathrine Paaske Sorensen to secure a 2-0 win for Denmark.
“Going in 0-0 at half-time was a massive achievement for this team”, said Herdman afterwards. “But their best isn't good enough on this stage at present. Instead, they have a huge passion and spirit, and the Chinese gave them great support tonight, an occasion on which we were two set-
plays away from getting a result”.
There will be some - Sunday Star Times columnist, Billy Harris, springs to mind - who baulk at this theory, claiming that the Danes dominated the match and should have won by far more. No arguments from this writer on either of those counts, but the fact remains that they only scored on two occasions, both of which stemmed from set-piece deliveries.
Had these proved as profligate as their other efforts … methinks the nay-sayers would find themselves being pointed in the general direction of a scoreboard showing a 0-0 scoreline and told - politely, of course - to “criticise that”!
The Danish fixture marked the first time in New Zealand's history that our flagship national team, gender regardless, had reached the half-way point in a match at a senior World Cup Finals on level terms - a genuine milestone moment in the development of the game in this country.
And to prove it wasn't a fluke, the Football Ferns went out and repeated the feat in their final match at the FIFA Women's World Cup Finals, silencing a sell-out crowd some 55,832 strong in Tianjin - the biggest attendance in the entire championships - as China's “Steel Roses” came face to face with good old-fashioned Kiwi grit and determination.
In this match, the Football Ferns had chances to score through Abby Erceg and Zoe Thompson, but it was the host nation who prevailed in the tournament's best-attended match - a sell-out 55,832-strong crowd - thanks to goals from Li Jie, who headed home a free-kick just before the hour, and Xie Caixia eleven minutes from time.
A second successive 2-0 reversal then, and a third defeat in all, for a young squad which will benefit hugely from this entire World Cup campaign. And while beaten, and disappointed that they failed to clinch at least a point or score a goal during China 2007, the scorelines alone are evidence that they were far from disgraced.
Indeed, the general consensus of the scribes in China is that only two teams, Ghana and Argentina, were out of their depth at a tournament which has seen the women's game move to a new level, particularly in terms of speed, tactics, individual talent and popularity.
Further, the Football Ferns' performances were such that their twin objectives of competitiveness and credibility were comfortably met, meaning John Herdman's young charges could head home from China holding their heads high, with justification aplenty.
“We have to play a certain way to counter the Han Duan's and Ma Xiaoxu's of this world”, reflected Herdman after their final game, “because we don't have players of that calibre.
“Instead, we've got 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, players in their early twenties, who'll all be at the next World Cup and the next Olympics. Hopefully you'll be talking about New Zealand players at those.
“I've referred to our `X-factor' at this tournament a great deal in these media conferences. For us, it's the team behind the team - the NZ Football staff, such as CEO Graham Seatter and Head of Women's Football, Michele Cox, the management team, and all those who've played a part in this team getting to where they are.
“The players know and believe that everyone believes in them, and that drives them to fulfil another typical Kiwi trait - keep on going, no matter what. For this team to have pushed Brazil, Denmark and China to their limits is a great achievement. They'll be all the stronger for this experience, and in nine months' time, we'll be stronger still - we'll see you again!”
Smith reflected on the tournament afterwards. “I'm highly proud of this team. The amount of effort they put in, and the amount of heart they played with was incredible. We've come a long way, and improved with every game.
“When you consider this squad first came together in March, just prior to the Oceania qualifiers in Papua New Guinea, their development in the ensuing six months has been tremendous.
“The commitments and sacrifices made by this squad of non-professional players, and how much we have demanded of our younger players in particular, shouldn't go unmentioned.
“This has been a wonderful tournament for us, and the Chinese fans have given us a lot of support - until we played them, of course! We really appreciated it, and greatly enjoyed our time here”.
There were tears aplenty following the final whistle in Tianjin, those of sadness mixing with those of pride at the efforts of this young squad, listed below for posterity:
Jenny Bindon; Hannah Bromley; Simone Carmichael; Priscilla Duncan; Abby Erceg; Wendi Henderson; Rachel Howard; Katie Hoyle; Emma Humphries; Maia Jackman; Annalie Longo; Emily McColl; Hayley Moorwood; Marlies Oostdam; Ria Percival; Stephanie Puckrin; Ali Riley; Merissa Smith; Rebecca Smith; Rebecca Tegg; Zoe Thompson
The Football Ferns' focus now turns towards next year's Olympic qualifying clash against Papua New Guinea, but the memories of China will linger long.
For those who had been there in particular, it was a genuine thrill to see the climax to an event which they had given their all to be a part of gracing New Zealand television screens for the first time ever.
Germany were comprehensive 3-0 victors over Norway in the first semi-final, while the second semi added further perspective to how well New Zealand had done in containing Brazil to five goals, because the stunning 4-0 mauling they administered to the USA could easily have been double that tally, so feeble were the favourites.
The final was a fitting showdown between the tournament's most entertaining team and its most resilient. And it was the resilience of the reigning champions which ultimately saw them make history.
Germany's 2-0 victory over Brazil saw them clinch back-to-back FIFA Women's World Cups, while failing to concede a single goal over the course of the entire tournament - a record never achieved at this level of the game, gender regardless, and one which may never be realised again.
The Football Ferns, for the record:
v. Brazil, 12 September, Wuhan - lost 5-0:
Bindon; Percival (booked, 25), Erceg, Jackman, R. Smith, Riley; McColl, Moorwood, Hoyle (Duncan, 66), Humphries (Thompson, 72); Henderson (Tegg, 46)
v. Denmark, 15 September, Wuhan - lost 2-0:
Bindon (booked, 90); Erceg (booked, 88), Jackman (booked, 60), R. Smith, Oostdam; Percival (Humphries, 70), Moorwood (Longo, 87), Duncan, McColl, Riley; Henderson (Tegg, 64)
v. China, 20 September, Tianjin - lost 2-0:
Bindon; Erceg, Jackman, R. Smith, Oostdam; Percival (M. Smith, 73), Moorwood (booked, 25), Duncan (booked, 56), McColl (Carmichael, 82), Riley; Henderson (Thompson, 62)