It was supposed to be a day of enlightenment for women’s football in New Zealand.

A celebration of equality for the female game. And a rare home appearance from the exciting, gutsy Football Ferns, drawing what would be a record-breaking crowd in Wellington, a city starved of a women’s soccer international for 27 years.

But instead it turned out to be a day clouded by what many fans saw as a slip backward for the national women’s team. A day on which the scoreline in the Football Ferns’ 3-1 loss to Japan wasn’t so dark, but where their defence-driven game plan cast long shadows.

As one disappointed follower, a father of two soccer-playing girls and a football coach, said afterwards: “I’ll be talking to the girls’ team at training and discussing how not to play like the Football Ferns.”

This wasn’t the warm fuzzy feeling the crowd was supposed to take home.

The encounter – a one-off friendly – always promised to be tough, but close. The Football Ferns have yet to beat Nadeshiko Japan, the winners of the 2011 World Cup and this year’s Asian Cup champions. The closest they’ve come is drawing with them twice – including a momentous 2-2 at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the first time New Zealand scored a point at a major world tournament.

And nothing could be taken away from the Japanese team who turned up in Wellington. They were all class right through the field, with their deft touches, pinpoint passing, suffocating marking and seamless, swift movement from defence to attack.

The Football Ferns, on the other hand, took few opportunities to show the attacking skills their fans had come to see. Instead, they’d adopted a new heavily-defensive format – five defenders, four midfielders and a lone striker – under their new coaching regime.

“We will never have that quality to even compete with Japan.”

– Football Ferns coach Andreas Heraf

Grumbles could be heard around Westpac Stadium that this was a slide back to a style New Zealand football played decades ago.

The result yesterday was that the New Zealanders held just over a quarter of the possession throughout the 90 minutes, and had far too few threatening shots on goal.

Even when they were down 3-1 at halftime, in a match with little riding on it other than experience and pride, the Ferns didn’t throw caution to the wind and become more aggressive on attack.

That simply wasn’t what the new coach of the Ferns, Andreas Heraf, wanted from his side. He maintained after the loss that this is what he wants to see from the Ferns – only with fewer goals against their name – if they make it through to next year’s World Cup.

“I’m quite happy with the performance today,” he said. “It was the first step in the direction where we want to go.”

Should New Zealand come up against the superpowers of women’s football in France next year – and achieve the goals of winning their first World Cup match and becoming the first New Zealand team to make it through to the top 16 – Heraf, a former Austrian international, wants them to “be safe, and not concede too many goals”.

The gap between New Zealand, ranked 20th in the world, and the nations favoured to win the World Cup is, right now, too wide.

“We will never have that quality to even compete with Japan and even be better than Japan,” he said of the world’s 11th-best side.

“There is much more money, more facilities, better coaches in [Japan]. So the gap is that big. So for that I think we tried to do our best, and the girls have done that. I’m really proud of them.”

The Football Ferns, who go back to their different corners of the globe today, will next meet in November, at the Oceania qualifiers in New Caledonia. There, they will play a more creative, attacking style, “because we are the favourites and we have to play our game,” Heraf said. “Against teams like Japan, that isn’t easy.”

Next to Heraf at the media conference table, the Football Ferns’ sole goal scorer, Meikayla Moore, seemed transfixed on the black tablecloth. She didn’t look like a player celebrating her first international goal – which she smashed home from close range, finishing off a corner cross from Rosie White, barely a minute after Japan opened the scoring with 17 minutes gone.

Yes, there were negatives from the game, 22-year-old Moore said – the young defender laying the blame on herself for getting on the wrong side of Japan forward Mina Tanaka, as she completed her stunning hat-trick of goals.

“There were individual mistakes but we can still iron those out. We still have time,” Moore said.

But there were some positives for the Ferns too, she contended. “This is the first period under Andreas that we’ve tried the 5-4-1, so it’s still new,” pointing out the team had only a handful of trainings since coming together last week.

They were trying to nullify Japan’s speed and technical brilliance, she pointed out. And, after a stuttered pause, she added: “Yeah, I think, it’s hard to play against a team of that calibre. And so our objective is to get the ball higher up the field, away from our goal, try to bring it down, try to control it, and then go from there.

“Same with the counterattacks; with the 5-4-1, we aim to win the ball and then attack behind them.”

And finally, she added: “We are all behind Andreas’ thinking.”

Adopting Heraf’s new philosophy hasn’t been easy in the Football Ferns camp. Captain Ali Riley (who missed yesterday’s game with a leg injury) told Newsroom last month there was tension in the team over Heraf’s performance-driven environment when they last played against Scotland in March. But she still believed “something very special” could be created under the new command.

New Zealand football fans want this to be a special time for the Ferns, now that the players have their Collective Bargaining Agreement, which affords them all the benefits that the All Whites enjoy.

It was clear from the 7,236-strong crowd in Wellington that the Ferns have one of the greatest followings they have ever enjoyed – at least 2000 more than the previous largest gathering at a Ferns’ home match, set in Auckland for a game against Canada 11 years ago.

“To have as many people turn up today, I was even tearing up in the national anthem,” Meikayla Moore said.

Elisha van Wyk, who plays under-16 women’s soccer in Auckland, flew down for the day to see her role models play. The Hobsonville Point Secondary School student has a bond with Wellington’s hometown hero Sarah Gregorius, who gave van Wyk her Football Ferns shirt and shorts after chatting to her the last time the national team played in New Zealand in 2015.

Although she’d hoped to see more attacking play from the Ferns, van Wyk felt “we needed five defenders” against at team of Japan’s class.

Sam Kendrick works with Gregorius at Capital Football, and the importance of the game for women’s football wasn’t lost on her.

“It means a lot just to see the international game returning to New Zealand. The fact the Football Ferns get to showcase what they can do is a big deal for them as well,” says Kendrick, who plays in the Wellington United premier women’s side, and coaches girls’ football.

“There’s been a massive growth in women’s football, especially in the all-girls leagues. It’s huge. And it will increase even more if there are more games at home.”

Through a translator, the Japanese coach Asako Takakura – the first woman to hold the job in Japan – called the Football Ferns “a really, really awesome team”.

The long passes from deep in New Zealand’s defence challenged her team, she said. But she also admitted to being surprised by just how defensive the Kiwis were, particularly in the first half.

The star of the match was undoubtedly Tanaka, in scoring all of Japan’s goals and continually putting pressure on the Ferns’ defence. Her last goal was the most impressive – a smart header from a beautifully-weighted cross from the right.

Tanaka hasn’t been considered one of Japan’s top strikers, and didn’t get a chance to play in the last World Cup. After this performance, her coach predicts she could make a “really big contribution to the team” in the future.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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