Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

Soccer's state of play: Forget upset or two, Football Ferns want to win them all

Sarah Gregorious.
Sarah Gregorious.

The Football Ferns have surprised everyone this year but themselves.

It may appear their stellar run of results in 2013, which included wins over Brazil and China to claim the Valais Cup in September and a 1-1 draw with the world No1 US side last month, came out of the blue, but for New Zealand striker Sarah Gregorius they were overdue.

"We can fully understand why it might seem like it has come out of nowhere, but our group has been together for so many years now and we've been working hard for so long that for us it did feel kind of inevitable that we were going to start getting those sorts of results," she said.

The overwhelming sense of confidence and self-assuredness in Gregorius' words is probably the best illustration of how much the team have developed over the past few years. The Football Ferns no longer see themselves as minnows - their aim isn't just to be competitive with the top nations and cause the odd upset, they aim to win every time.

Take their attitude heading into last month's series against Olympic champions the US for example. Gregorius said her side weren't daunted about taking them on.

"I think like any Kiwi team we thought we could give it a good crack. You want to play those sorts of big games - everyone was really up for it."

The Ferns lost their opening game 1-4, but bounced back with a draw against the star-studded US side - a display Gregorius rates as their best in a season of highlights.

"That was something we're really proud of because to turn things around so quickly against such an accomplished team is a great way to finish the year and was a reflection of the strength of the group."

That strength has come about through a combination of factors coming together at the right time: a core group who have risen through the ranks together; NZ Football recognising the potential for growth in the women's game; increased investment from High Performance Sport; and more players getting chances to play in top leagues around the world.

Gregorius is based in the UK for most of the year where she plays for Liverpool in the FA women's league, while Hayley Bowden (nee Moorwood) is contracted to Chelsea. Other Kiwis play in the German league, including Ria Percival, Abby Erceg and Amber Hearn, while Rosie White and Hannah Wilkinson are developing nicely in the US College system.

"You just can't replicate that kind of quality week-in, week-out in terms of standard of competition in New Zealand so it's really important that some of us have had these opportunities to play overseas," said Gregorius.

The experience and insight gathered overseas had contributed to an increasingly professional approach in the Football Ferns, aided by a well-structured and resourced high-performance programme run by coach Tony Readings.

NZF chose to invest a healthy sum into their women's programme. While women's soccer is played in over 120 countries, few commit any meaningful resource to their teams, which extrapolates out to a greater likelihood of return for New Zealand at pinnacle events.

That is reflected in the Football Ferns' ranking of 19th in the world - although they could climb a rung or two when Fifa release their new rankings next month - compared with the All Whites' ranking of 79.

"I think NZF have really done their best to support us and put things in place at grassroots level to make sure this isn't just flash in the pan type success," said Gregorius.

"I think they understand they can have success in both but other sports in New Zealand tend to let the female side of the game fall by the wayside but NZF, to their credit, have seen the potential there."

- NZ Herald

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