This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2023 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 20 July.
New Zealand’s top footballers are facing a similar predicament to their world champion rugby counterparts – entering the biggest tournament of their lives on home soil on the back of a run of poor form.
Amazingly, the Black Ferns turned that around in Auckland eight months ago to retain their rugby crown but no one is suggesting the Football Ferns will achieve anything remotely similar. Their Fifa world ranking has slipped to its lowest ever point of 26 from a high of 16 in 2015. Making the knockout rounds for the first time from a group containing Norway, the Philippines and Switzerland is the ambition but the omens are not good.
In the first 14 games after Jitka Klimkova was appointed national coach in 2021 New Zealand won just one, leaking 35 goals while scoring just five. It is a grim record far removed from Klimkova’s promise on her appointment that she would not be depending on the traditional playing style of New Zealand teams: tough defensively and then relying on the long ball to score goals. “Whoever we are up against, New Zealand will be a team that plays to win,” she told Fifa.com.
New Zealand qualified automatically from the Oceania region as the host nation (alongside Australia) but as if a goal drought and defensive lapses have not been bad enough, key players, including midfielders Olivia Chance, Betsy Hassett, Ria Percival, Annalie Longo and defender CJ Bott have suffered injuries that have sidelined them for months before gradually returning to their clubs and World Cup contention.
Injuries have opened doors for exciting newcomers such as striker Milly Clegg who at just 17 attracted the coach’s interest after “brilliant performances” at the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups.
Much will depend on the veterans though, including captain and right-back Ali Riley (capped 152 times) who at 35 will play at her fifth World Cup. She has been in fine form for her US club, Angel City, and is optimistic the national team will deliver for fans. “I hope that we live up to the slogan of ‘beyond greatness’ by creating a legacy for the Ferns who come after us,” she said.
Klimkova, who took on the role via coaching the youth teams of New Zealand, USA and her native Czech Republic, has not backed away from a positive approach. “We want to play attacking football that results in taking our chances in front of goal and be greedy in defence and win the ball back further up the field.”
The improvements during the World Cup buildup have been substantial, according to the coach, especially once overseas players such as Bott returned and by late June she was confident injured players would have completed their rehab. Training sessions were revealing sharpness in front of goal, improved fitness and the ability to change styles to address how their opposition would play, she said. As for playing at home: “The fans will be our 12th player and that’s so important to our team. We will grab this opportunity.”
Regarded as the Ferns’ best player for her speed and aggression, Bott’s presence was sorely missed as she recovered from injuries during the buildup. With 34 caps to her name, the Leicester City player is well regarded for her defensive abilities as well as her willingness to spearhead attacks.
She had a tough apprenticeship before proving herself as the first-choice right full-back. She understudied her mentor, Percival, for about four years before seizing her chance. Bott said a home World Cup will be the pinnacle. “That’s just something that wasn’t even an option growing up,” she told Sky Sport. “No matter what team I ever play for that’s going to be the biggest moment of my career. I’ll be so proud.”
Michaela Foster has risen to senior status this year on the back of a sparkling debut season with her Wellington club, the Phoenix. She’s the daughter of All Blacks coach Ian Foster and made her New Zealand debut at the stadium in her hometown, Hamilton, where her dad still holds the record for the most caps in Waikato rugby. “It’s my stadium now Dad,” she said. “I have a lot of good memories, family memories, there, mostly with rugby.” A full-back, her set-piece ability off both feet is among her strengths.
Did you know?
Striker Hannah Wilkinson is not only the squad’s go-to guitarist and sing-along leader, she is a talented mural artist who uses art to escape from the pressures of being an elite athlete. To mark three women’s World Cups being held in New Zealand within two years (cricket, rugby and football), she was commissioned to create a mural at Eden Park – venue for several World Cup matches. “It was amazing, such a cool experience,” she said.
Almost 40,000 girls and women were playing in 2018 – a five-fold increase in 30 years, however, well behind the 350,000 who play the most popular sport, netball. Women’s football was played briefly in the 1920s but once the FA in England banned it, New Zealand followed suit and it took half a century to return. By 1973, official club-based women’s league competitions were being played in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
As they mark a 50-year milestone, veteran players can recall how times have changed – from fighting for grounds, changing rooms, and gear to programmes set up to encourage more female coaches, referees, mentors and administrators as well as pathways for more professional players. As well, the formation of a Wellington Phoenix women’s side that competes in the A-League (with Australian club teams) was fast-tracked to enable more opportunities for top players and has also resulted in an increase in the limited TV coverage of the women’s game.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
New Zealand have played 15 matches in all World Cups and won none so reaching the knockout stage may be too tall an order. A win over the 46th-ranked Philippines shapes as a realistic target, while draws or narrow losses to Norway (ranked 12) and Switzerland (20) would be encouraging. The former NZ international Maia Jackman (capped 50 times) believes the tournament has come too soon and the team’s peak will coincide with the next World Cup. But the buzz of playing in front of families and fans may restore some grit. “World Cups bring out the best in players and I believe come 20 July [the tournament’s opening match against Norway] we’ll see a different Football Ferns outfit,” she says.
The New Zealand team guide was written by Maree Mahony for RNZ in New Zealand. Additional reporting by Newsroom’s Locker Room.