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.
New Zealand’s shirt.
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.
The coach Jitka 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, CJ 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.
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Striker Hannah Wilkinson is not only the squad’s go-to guitarist and sing-along leader, but she is also a talented mural artist who uses art to escape from the pressures of being an elite athlete. To mark 3 women’s World Cups being held in New Zealand within 2 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.
Standing of the game in NZ
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 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.
Norway have gone through a big transition since last year’s Euros, where they crashed out of the group stage and suffered a humiliating 8-0 defeat against England. Out went the coach, Martin Sjögren, and his aim to dominate play with a 4-4-2 formation. In came Hege Riise and a more cynical approach, where defensive stability is the key to success in a 4-3-3 or 5-4-1.
“We have to acknowledge where we stand at the moment and work from that,” Riise said upon being appointed in August. She did not have the best of starts, it is fair to say. The day after her first squad selection, Barcelona’s Caroline Graham Hansen announced she would take a break from international duty due to fatigue. Just weeks later another of the team’s superstars, Ada Hegerberg, got injured for seven months. The captain, Maren Mjelde, and Barça’s Ingrid Syrstad Engen have also been out for spells, but all four are back for the World Cup. Despite their absences, Riise’s “new Norway” produced some good performances in friendlies against strong teams such as the Netherlands, France, England and Sweden. By that time they had already secured qualification for the World Cup, topping Group F thanks to a 1-0 win against Belgium in September last year. Riise has clearly got them playing the way she wants, as the midfielder Guro Reiten said: “We’re difficult and annoying to play against – just like we want to be.” It will be fascinating to see how they get on this summer, merely a year after their implosion in England.
Crowned world player of the year in 1995, Hege Riise was one of the major contributors to Norway’s golden years in women’s football. They won the 1993 Euros, the World Cup two years later and added Olympic gold in 2000. She started out as a coach at Team Strømmen before making LSK Kvinner an attacking force, winning four league titles and three cups. She was appointed interim coach for England and Team GB in January 2021 and led the team at the Olympics later that year. Riise called it an honour but the team went out in the quarter-finals to Australia.
In her subsequent role with the Norway Under-19s at the 2022 Euros, she showed her ability to adapt in a tournament environment. After being comprehensively beaten 4-1 by England in their opening game, the team changed their approach to a more defensive style and beat Germany, Sweden and France on their way to the final, where they lost 2-1 to Spain.
Ada Hegerberg. The first female Ballon d’Or winner has made a mark not only on the pitch but also with her fight for equality between men and women and boys and girls. A six-time Champions League winner with Lyon, she quit international football in 2017 after becoming frustrated at what she perceived as a lack of support for the women’s team and for the development of girls’ football in Norway. “I hope I did everything for my sport to be appreciated, respected and left in a better way than what I found it in. It’s much bigger than me,” she told the LA Times last year.
Anna Jøsendal is the first female international from the town Odda (4,800 inhabitants) and definitely one to watch. The explosive left-footed winger has already drawn attention from foreign clubs and competition for her signature will only have increased after an impressive start to the 2023 season with Rosenborg. The 22-year-old is high up in the goals and assists charts and is expected to move abroad soon. Her contract runs out at the end of the year.
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Pretty much the entire Norway squad has become gripped by a particular pastime during camps in the recent 12 months, namely crosswords. The press officer Halvor Lea started printing and handing out crosswords to anyone who wanted one and the activity became more and more popular. ”We help each other out if anyone gets stuck so it has become a really social thing for us,” the goalkeeper Guro Pettersen said.
Standing of women’s football in Norway
Since the Norwegian FA acknowledged female football in 1971 the activity has become the most popular sport for women in the country with approximately 73,000 registered female players. Media coverage is on the rise with a new TV deal for the Toppserien. Every Saturday at 3pm on TV 2 also have a goal show, covering all the games being played at the time.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
“It shouldn’t be a load on the players. They have to feel free and feel like they are challenging, not that they are favourites in this tournament – it has been many years since we were,” the Norwegian FA president, Lise Klaveness, said at the same time as, er, saying that they are expected to win group A and reach the last 16. To be fair, anything else would be a major disappointment for a team desperate to prove themselves after last year’s disappointment. Once in the knockout stage, tough opponents await, but anything is possible for this group of players.
Football in the Philippines has always been in the shadows of basketball and boxing but in the last decade, the women’s international team, the Filipinas, has been steadily on the rise and came close to qualifying for the 2019 World Cup in France. Last year, the breakthrough finally happened. The Philippines reached the semi-finals of the 2022 AFC Asian Cup with a defensive solidity, resilience and a trademark never-say-die attitude on display all tournament long, and that was enough to qualify for the country’s first World Cup. Much like their male counterparts, the Philippine diaspora has provided the country with options all across the world, and particularly in the United States. The key to success, however, was the hiring of the experienced former Australia coach Alen Stajcic in 2021, his tactical acumen and tournament team management instrumental in taking the Philippines to the next level.
New players joined the squad too, such as Norwegian-born Sara Eggesvik and Canadian-born Jackie Sawicki, and they had no problem fitting in and bonding with the experienced players in the team, such as the defensive linchpin Hali Long and captain Tahnai Annis. They went on to secure their first medal in 37 years at the Southeast Asian Games, beating Myanmar to win bronze, before capping their superb run with a first major trophy a few months later by winning the 2022 AFF Women’s Championships held in the Philippines. The biggest victory of them all, though, was qualifying for the World Cup, a moment Stajcic described as “probably the best achievement so far of my coaching career”. In Group A they face higher-ranked sides Switzerland, New Zealand and Norway, but they are not going to the World Cup to make up the numbers. “We are very happy to be there. We are excited, we are proud and we are appreciating every moment,” said Stajcic. “We are grateful that we have earned the right for this opportunity and we are respectful of an event that brings together the best female athletes on the planet. We have also raised the bar so high in the past 18 months that none of us will put a ceiling on how high that bar can go.”
The former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic arrived on a three-month contract in October 2021 with the aim to qualify for the World Cup and exceeded expectations when the team reached Australia and New Zealand without having to go through the playoffs.
The immediate success earned him the adoration of the fans, as well as a hashtag #InStajWeTrust. He has taken Australia to two World Cups and led them to the quarter-finals of the 2016 Olympics, where they lost on penalties to hosts Brazil. His tournament experience will be vital for the debutants and the players speak highly of him. “He is one of the great assets of this team and we have come a long way because of him,” says Sarina Bolden.
Sarina Bolden arrives in Australia and New Zealand having scored a joint record 22 goals in 37 appearances at the time of writing and having converted the shootout penalty that secured World Cup qualification. She sets an example for the rest of the players with her as well as style of play, inspiring others to give their all too. “I’m a player who has energy,” she told fifa.com. “I try my best to bring that energy and keep the tempo high. And I think I’m a leader on the field. All of that makes me the player that I am.” Having picked up experience from playing in the US – where she was born – as well as Sweden, Taiwan and Japan, Bolden has been with Western Sydney Wanderers since 2022.
After impressing in the holding midfield role at the AFC Under-20 World Cup qualifiers, Bella Pasion was rewarded with a call-up to the senior team and the 16-year-old has certainly not looked out of place. Described by the Under-20 coach, Nahuel Arrarte, as a “gritty player”, he added: “She’s very coachable and has a winning mentality. She played with a maturity beyond her years. Very few players can handle that, but she’s on the right track. If she continues to work hard, she will achieve great things.”
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Having scored so many goals for her country there is no surprise perhaps that Bolden would be in the GOAT discussion when it comes to female players in the Philippines. So no one was in the least bit surprised when the Instagram account sarina.thegoat.bolden popped up. The player, though, was at pains to point out that she had not set it up. “The Instagram account is not mine,” she said. “My teammates have known about this account for some time already and they love it.”
Standing of women’s football in the Philippines.
The football coverage – not to speak about women’s football coverage – is regrettably scarce in a country where Steph Curry and Manny Pacquiao reign supreme but the Filipinas’ qualification for the World Cup has sparked renewed interest in the sport among girls, particularly in the younger age groups. There are now all-girls teams playing in most youth divisions in the summer football leagues and the PFF Women’s League is in its fourth year and going strong with 10 participating teams, including five from universities.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
Fans could be forgiven for feeling optimistic when the Philippines were drawn in a relatively even Group A but despite avoiding some of the traditional football heavyweights on the women’s side it will not be easy for the Filipinas to get out of the group. That said they have left no stone unturned in their preparations with friendlies in Europe and South America in the buildup to the tournament. As the team manager, Jefferson Cheng, said: “We are dreaming of creating our own Cinderella story. Obviously the odds are against us based on our ranking but I assure you we will represent our country in the best way possible.”
This is the second time Switzerland have reached the Women’s World Cup and despite modest results under their coach, Inka Grings, and an ankle injury to the inspirational captain, Lia Wälti, there is a positivity surrounding the team. In contrast to some of the top teams, Switzerland has a relatively small squad. In some ways it made it easier for Grings to pick her final 23 but it also means their most influential players have to be at their absolute best if they are to cause some surprises. Wälti, together with PSG’s Ramona Bachmann and Barcelona’s Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, are the heart and soul of the team. The dependence on the trio is “damn dangerous” as Grings said in April when her side lost 2-1 to Iceland without Wälti and Bachmann.
The start under Grings has been difficult. The four friendlies in the spring against Poland (two games), China and Iceland ended with no wins and two goals scored. “The desire in front of goal is still a bit lacking,” said the midfielder Seraina Piubel. A 3-3 draw against Zambia last week showed they are capable of scoring but also that there is work to be done in defence. A few days later they lost the 16-year forward sensation Iman Beney, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in training. However, Switzerland can still dream of getting out of the group because the draw was kind to them. They are in Group A with co-hosts New Zealand, Norway and the Philippines, who are among the five lowest-ranked teams in the tournament. They will be very disappointed not to qualify for the knockout stage.
Standing of the female game in Switzerland
This will be Switzerland’s fourth appearance at a major tournament, after qualifying for the 2015 World Cup and the Euros in 2017 and 2022. However, despite some good performances they are yet to finish above third in a group. Top spot could be achieved this time thanks to a good mix of experience and youthful energy in the squad. They know a good showing is likely to trigger increased interest in the sport and in the team, which is no small matter considering there is a home Euros to come in two years.
Having succeeded Nils Nielsen at the start of the year, there is a fresh wind blowing through the national team under Inka Grings. She talks in a clear and concise way and while Nielsen put a lot of emphasis on a cultivated buildup play and ball possession, Grings is more interested in a straightforward and quick approach from defence to attack. She had a successful playing career, scoring 64 goals in 96 games for Germany, winning the Euros in 2005 and 2009. As a coach, she was in charge of FC Zürich for a year and a half, when they won the double and qualified for the Champions League. Players have said the training sessions have been far more intense than before the Euros.
Bachmann or Alisha Lehmann may be better known and Crnogorcevic more successful, but the most important player is the captain, Lia Wälti – on and off the pitch. She has an outstanding understanding of the game and has great authority as a leader. As early as 2015 Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, the current Germany coach, said she had the potential to be a world-class player at that year’s World Cup and although it took her a bit longer to reach that status she is there now. She moved to Arsenal in 2018 and immediately won the Women’s Super League title. Despite an ankle injury in May she is expected to be captain for the opening game against the Philippines.
Seraina Piubel has had a breakthrough season with her goals and assists crucial as FC Zürich succesfully defended their league title. The midfielder also came into her own for the national team under her former club coach, Grings. A move abroad is surely imminent but Piubel is phlegmatic about the situation. “Whatever happens, happens,” she says. She was born into a footballing family with her mother, Sandra Piubel, winning one cap for Switzerland and her father, Urs Meier, securing several Swiss league titles with Grasshoppers. Piubel is extremely versatile and can be deployed in a number of positions in midfield and even up front. Her favourite position? Just behind the strikers.
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Fabienne Humm is unique in Swiss football. In 2015, she made history with the fastest World Cup hat-trick – rounding off her treble in five minutes. Also a logistics businesswoman, she decided against a professional career abroad and feels at home in Zürich. At the 2022 Euros, she did some of her work in the hotel and was absent for part of the World Cup preparations because of her career.
Standing of women’s football in Switzerland
In 1970, some pioneers founded Switzerland’s first women’s league but it was not until 1993 that it was integrated into the football federation. In 2004, a training centre for girls was opened in Huttwil, which laid the foundation for the successes of the modern era. The World Cup debut in 2015 and being at the Euros in 2017 and 2022 all increased public interest and now more than 34,000 women are licensed players in Switzerland. The federation is hoping that hosting the 2025 European Championship will lead to another boom. There will be two women on the federation board from July 2024 but there is still a lot to do when it comes to the daily running of the league: if you want to be a professional you have to move abroad.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
The draw was kind and finishing in the top two and qualifying for the knockout stage is the clear goal. “We take it step by step,” says Bachmann but they have said they have packed to last until the final, on 20 August. Realistically, the quarter-finals are probably this team’s ceiling.
Courtesy of the Guardian