For New Zealanders at the Fifa Women’s World Cup, the experience was, in many ways, bittersweet.
While the tournament as a whole was heralded as an unprecedented success, for the Football Ferns it was an unbridled disappointment.
The tournament was supposed to be the beginning of a new era of women’s football in New Zealand, consigning the annus horribilis of 2018 firmly to the past. Targeting their first World Cup win and appearance in the knockout rounds, the Football Ferns went to France determined to make history. Instead they finished bottom of their group, succumbing to three straight defeats.
The Fifa rankings released after the World Cup saw the Ferns drop out of the top 20 for the first time since December 2012, to a low of 23.
It would be easy to become mired in a gloomy postmortem, or to just accept that what’s done is done. Yet the potential in women’s football, globally and in New Zealand, is such that something has to change.
In Beyond Football, New Zealand Football’s high performance plan, the governing body aimed for the Ferns to be regularly in Fifa’s top 10 this year, to win a medal at the Olympics, and to at least make the World Cup quarterfinals.
There needs to be acknowledgement of what didn’t work, and concerted efforts made for bold, brave, innovative change if the Ferns are to foot it with the best in the world.
So what went wrong in France? For the most experienced team New Zealand has ever sent to a Women’s World Cup (including seven centurions, an NWSL champion and defender of the year, a Champions League semi-finalist, and an FA Cup finalist), inspired by the under 17s’ third place in their World Cup last year and buoyed by a victory against World Cup favourites England in the tournament warm-ups, hopes and expectations were high.
Yet a series of uncharacteristic errors cost the Ferns at crucial moments in France: late goals conceded against the Netherlands (overshadowing an otherwise impressive display against the eventual finalists) and Cameroon, and a dire performance against Canada. Throughout the tournament the Ferns struggled to create chances in front of goal, and left France with just one strike contributing to the ‘goals for’ column (and even that was courtesy of a Cameroonian own goal).
“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,” says Football Ferns coach Tom Sermanni, matter of factly.
“When you actually boil the games down, I think the first game [Holland] and the third game [Cameroon] came down to very small margins. And I think some critical decision-making at the end of the games went against us.
“But I think that, for the team that we had, I can’t go away and complain that the players didn’t give 100 percent effort, can’t complain that they didn’t buy into what we were trying to do.
“All that stuff was there. At the end of the day, we came up short in a couple of marginal things.”
The story we so often tell ourselves about New Zealand sport, and the Football Ferns in particular, is how ‘we punch above our weight’. It’s true that the Football Ferns’ continued presence at World Cups (admittedly thanks to a guaranteed place for Oceania Confederation teams) and their record of closely pushing teams like England and the Netherlands, has given the Ferns a reputation for being ‘competitive’ that belies the general perception of New Zealand as a football nation.
But the Ferns need to move on from “the stage of being just competitive,” says Sermanni.
He sees some parallels of the stage New Zealand is at now with that of Australia, when they shifted from the Oceania Confederation to the Asian Football Confederation in 2006. Before the shift, while perceived as a ‘competitive’ team, the Matildas had never won a World Cup game.
Sound familiar? The move necessitated a mindset shift in the women’s game in Australia, says Sermanni, who was the Matildas’ coach at the time.
“It was no longer good enough for us to just be competitive, because we’d have never qualified for a World Cup. So we had to change how we played, how we looked at the players that we needed to get, to take the programme forward,” he says.
In order to move from being a competitive team at World Cups to being a successful team – in an environment where systematic, strategic investment and preparation is exponentially improving – this needs to be reflected in NZ Football’s long-term approach to the women’s game. Perhaps the failure in France, while devastating for the fact that it can be reduced to marginal errors, could turn out to be a blessing in disguise if it forces a reevaluation of how the Football Ferns are prepared for major tournaments.
As the women’s game continues to develop and professionalise worldwide, senior Fern Sarah Gregorius says New Zealand can’t just rely on “hoping that you’ll turn up in four years and put in a shift. It just isn’t going to work.
“As talented as the group of players might be, it’s not enough. It’s honestly not enough anymore,” she says.
“Having a certain amount of caps isn’t enough – this was the most experienced team in terms of caps [that New Zealand has sent to a World Cup] – but I think New Zealand Football and the players individually have to think really hard in terms of what they’re doing and where they’re doing it.”
In the short term, what’s clear is that a repeat of anything like the previous four-year cycle won’t cut it. The effect of events of 2018, when the Ferns programme was dormant from June to November while the Muir Review took place, cannot be discounted.
But even before that, the programme was disjointed, notes Sermanni, because of the change in coach – when Tony Readings resigned at the end of 2017 and Andreas Heraf was appointed. That in itself entailed a bedding-in process which ultimately amounted to little.
“For a national team, which is not a week-to-week situation, that preparation period in the year before the World Cup is really very, very important,” Sermanni says.
While the Muir Review took place, the Ferns’ World Cup preparations ground to a halt. But, of course, the rest of the world’s had not.
And, despite the preparation period the month before the World Cup easily being the most comprehensive the Football Ferns have ever had, the reality, says Sermanni (who was only appointed as the Ferns coach at the end of October) was also that the programme was “playing catch up from the situation we inherited”.
Looking ahead to the Olympics (now under a year away) gives the opportunity to quickly move past the disappointment.
With Sermanni confirmed to be in charge of the Ferns to the end of the Tokyo Olympics, there will at least be a consistency in build-up to this tournament that they didn’t have before the World Cup.
“We’ve got a stable base now,” he says.
The Olympic squads of 18 (rather than the World Cup’s 23) makes competition for places “a little bit tighter, which I think is to our benefit”.
Teams that enjoyed success in France had several things in common: a blend of flair and physicality in their playing style, squad depth and robust preparations across the cycle. While the winners, the United States, have long been the standard-setters in all of these areas, most notable was how quickly European teams have followed suit.
Of the nine European teams at the tournament, eight made the knockout stages and seven were in the final eight.
In the last four years, Italian powerhouse clubs like Juventus have started professional women’s teams. This year Italy qualified for their first World Cup in 20 years and made the quarterfinals. Similarly, the Netherlands only played their first World Cup in 2015, won the European championships in 2017, and this year made the final.
Teams barely on the radar in 2015 have now thrust themselves into the sport’s upper echelons.
On the flipside, there are countries previously at the vanguard of women’s football who have tapered off. Comparing the 2015 quarterfinalists cohort with this year’s tournament, non-European teams under-achieved most by the previous standards they’d set for themselves: Japan, Australia, Canada and China all fell in this year’s round of 16. The decline of Japan is perhaps the most stark, being winners in 2011 and runners up in 2015.
“We’re at a crossroads,” says Gregorius. “Asia’s at a crossroads too.”
She reflects on Japan, in particular, who as New Zealand saw in Wellington last year, rely on an intricate, technical passing game to outwit their opposition. But even they found that this year in France, it wasn’t enough.
“Everybody outside of Europe has to take a really, really hard look at their programme,” Gregorious says.
Hand-in-hand with a long term strategy for the Ferns programme, there needs to be broader questions asked as to how it is funded, and what other options are available.
After the Ferns’ elimination, it was reported that the funding from High Performance Sport New Zealand, which makes up the bulk of funding for the team’s programme, looked likely to be cut.
NZ Football and HPSNZ are currently debriefing from the World Cup campaign – the decision is to be made in December. Given the criteria (the sport’s context, previous performance, the programme’s potential, and programme and campaign quality), the programme is left in a bind. With success comes funding, but where investment in a rebuild is clearly needed, the funds are less.
Other avenues need to be explored to supplement this funding – especially in light of the commercial success of France 2019. Even just looking at the other teams at the World Cup, and the sponsorship arrangements for teams like England, Australia and the US, gives some indication of the potential in this area.
As one World Cup cycle ends, another begins. The specifics of what needs to change and improve hinge on a blend of long-term strategies around player talent identification and development priorities; imprinting playing philosophies; careful, cycle-long preparation.
Each feeds off and leans on the other, acknowledging that, globally, what’s required for success in women’s football has irrevocably shifted, and demands more. Courageous, innovative and nuanced thinking is needed to navigate the fine margins that govern success or failure.
That thinking needs to begin, and be put into meaningful action, today.