Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Football: Ferns growing nicely after fertilising talent

Kirsty Yallop. Photo / Photosport
Kirsty Yallop. Photo / Photosport

The progression of women's football in this country will become apparent when the Football Ferns team for the Rio Olympics is named on Tuesday.

Tony Readings' side will be full of experience, easily the most seasoned New Zealand team ever fielded.

It wasn't so long ago 50 caps was a major milestone for a Kiwi female, the likes of Maia Jackman (50) and Wendi Henderson (64) achieving such marks during careers that spanned almost two decades.

But the team for Brazil will feature five players with more than 100 games for their country, and three others who have worn the fern more than 90 times.

It symbolises the increased opportunities in the sport. The popularity of the women's game has skyrocketed over the past decade, and Australia's defection to the Asian confederation opened doors to major competitions for the Ferns.

"It's been a massive change," said Kirsty Yallop, a 13-year veteran of the team. "So many of us have now been to Olympics and World Cups. You never take it for granted, but we feel like we belong at that level now."

It hasn't always been that way. Yallop's debut in 2004 was a 6-0 hiding at the hands of the United States, who remain the benchmark in the international game. Four years later New Zealand made their Olympic debut in Beijing.

"We had had no exposure at that level," said Yallop. "We didn't know what to expect. It was a bit of a journey into the unknown."

Yallop scored New Zealand's first Olympic goal against Japan, with the Asian champions coming back from a 2-0 deficit to grab a point. Losses to Norway 1-0 and eventual gold medallists USA 4-0 left the Ferns at the bottom of their group.

There was progress in London four years later, as the Ferns reached the quarter-final stage before being tipped out again by the Americans (2-0).

"It's been a long journey for our side," said Yallop. "A lot of us have come through together. Our style and performances have come a long way."

Yallop is one of a core of professional players in the current Ferns squad, having being based in Sweden for the past five seasons.

"It's one of the best leagues in the world," said Yallop. "The standard is pretty high, with players from all over the world."

Yallop is in line to win her 100th cap in New Zealand's opening Olympic match against the powerful Americans, yet again. Their group is arguably the toughest - with France and Colombia - but Yallop is aiming high.

"We believe we are capable of getting to the knockout rounds and then anything is possible," said Yallop.

- Herald on Sunday

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