Olympics: Fern eyes world honour in opener

By Michael Brown

Annalie Longo. File photo / Janna Dixon
Annalie Longo. File photo / Janna Dixon

Playing Great Britain and opening the Olympics will be special enough for the New Zealand women's soccer side but it will take on extra significance for Annalie Longo, who could create history.

The Football Ferns have been handed the honour of playing the first game of any sport at the Games when they take on Great Britain in Cardiff on Thursday (NZ time).

If Longo takes the field - and she has a good chance of playing after some encouraging recent form - she will become the first woman to play in every major tournament at every level.

The 21-year-old started the run at the 2006 Under-20 World Cup in Russia, and followed that up with the senior and under-17 world cups.

The Olympics will complete the set.

To be sure she creates history, however, Longo probably needs to play in the first 60 minutes against Great Britain. Japan's Mana Iwabuchi is also on the verge of collecting a full house - Japan play their first match just an hour after New Zealand kick off - and a handful of North Koreans and Colombians as well as New Zealand teammate Rosie White can also achieve the feat.

Longo has been used largely as a substitute over the past couple of years but made an impact in her last two outings against Canada and Colombia and it's expected she will play some part in the match.

"I didn't actually realise [I could be the first] until recently so I am absolutely stoked and very lucky," Longo said. "To achieve it at the Olympics is amazing. I have dreamed of playing at an Olympics since I was a little girl."

She narrowly missed out on achieving the feat in Beijing, when she was one of the last players culled. It hurt at the time but Longo believes she is a better player because of it.

"That was a really tough break," she said. "I found out on my birthday. It was pretty devastating.

"I said to myself I needed to work harder and do everything to be part of the squad this time."

Longo is something of a symbol of the opportunities in women's soccer in New Zealand. She holds the record for the youngest woman to play for the Football Ferns, making her debut aged 15 years and 136 days, and she has played in more Fifa tournaments than any other New Zealander - the Olympics will be her seventh.

This country has dominated women's soccer in the Oceania region since Australia moved to Asia in 2006 and qualified for every World Cup and Olympics since.

It has given players opportunities - nine of the 18-strong New Zealand squad play professionally in Europe - but also seen the team improve considerably.

They went on a nine-game win streak this year which included two wins over China, a former super power of the women's game, and in February threatened to beat the top-ranked US until they conceded two goals in the last five minutes to go down 2-1.

Thursday's game will be a big occasion, and 40,000 tickets had already been sold by last week, but New Zealand have an experienced squad with close to 900 caps between them. There are also 11 veterans of the 2008 Olympics and the draw is a generous one with eight of the 12 teams progressing to the quarter-finals.

"What we have showed this year is that, when we are on our game, we are capable of beating anyone," coach Tony Readings said. "We are very, very confident of making the last eight. Once we do that, we are only one more win away from playing for a medal."

New Zealand round out pool play with games against Brazil and Cameroon.

- APNZ

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