Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Football Ferns to be part of boys' league

Abby Erceg's shock retirement put the Ferns in the spotlight. Photo / Brad Smith
Abby Erceg's shock retirement put the Ferns in the spotlight. Photo / Brad Smith

The Football Ferns are set to play in an Auckland boys' league this season, in New Zealand Football's latest initiative in women's football.

It means that the domestic based-Ferns won't play for their clubs, except in Cup competitions, when the league takes a break.

The Ferns - and how best to prepare them - have come under the spotlight since Abby Erceg's shock retirement two weeks ago.

The former captain, who has played more matches (131) for New Zealand than any other player, said that NZF "undervalued" the women's game, didn't support the fringe players in the squad and didn't provide a suitable high performance environment.
It means that NZF's latest plan will be closely scrutinised.

The Herald understands that the plan - called the Football Ferns Development Programme - will involve the 25 best domestic based players from around the country.

Those accepted into the programme will train together on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, with a competition match on Thursday night or Sunday afternoon.

Training sessions are expected to be in the evenings, so the players can still fulfil their work or study commitments.

Players will also have weekly access to the High Performance Sport New Zealand gym facilities and nutrition advice.

The overall goal is to accelerate the development of the best domestic based players, to provide a greater pool of players for the Ferns and a bridge to the professional game.

However, the plan will be controversial. It is expected to severely weaken the Northern Women's Football League and other regional competitions with the top players taken out of circulation.

There is also a question over the standard of opposition the FFDP team will face.

They will be part of the under-17 boys' Conference competition, which is far from the top tier male competition for that age.

The top 16 and 17-year old male players tend to be in first, reserve or youth teams at their winter clubs. Other players are focused on 1st XI football, in what is often their final year at school.

The next tier is the under-17 boys' Metropolitan league - with the top clubs in Auckland - so the Conference league is effectively the fourth tier of players at that level.

While there is a recognition that the Ferns - and wannabe Ferns - have to improve their level to compete with fully professional teams on the world stage, it's uncertain what kind of competition they will face and the main challenge could be more physical than technical.

There may also be a player safety issue.

Generally girls are not allowed to play in boys' teams beyond the age of 13 or 14 in New Zealand, partly due to the physical risks of collisions with much bigger bodies.

So the prospect of some of our top female players facing such male competition on a weekly basis will raise some eyebrows.

It's also created a headache for several clubs, who have been recruiting players for the upcoming season since last October.

They didn't learn of NZF's plans until a few weeks ago, and now face a campaign essentially deprived of their top players.

- NZ Herald

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