By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand’s women’s soccer team sense their best chance to become the first senior side from the rugby-mad country to advance out of their group at next month’s World Cup in France, captain Ali Riley said.
The 19th-ranked Football Ferns have been drawn in Group E with world number five Canada, the Netherlands (eighth), and Cameroon (46th) for the June 7-July 7 tournament in France.
No New Zealand senior team have advanced outside of their group at the World Cup finals. The All Whites men’s team qualified only twice, in 1982 and 2010, while the women have not won a game in four previous appearances.
Defender Riley, who plays for Chelsea’s women’s team, however said that achieving a win was a minimum target as they look to put to bed a tumultuous 12 months.
“Our expectations are so much higher,” Riley told reporters on a conference call ahead of Thursday’s match against world champions the United States in St. Louis. They play three more international friendlies before their Group E opener against the Netherlands on June 11 in Le Havre.
“We’re there to win and to make a statement and to make sure that we’re inspiring those young girls back home.”
Riley’s confidence is partly based on the squad’s experience, with six players having accumulated more than 100 caps, while two others are in the 90s.
“This is our best chance we have had since I’ve been in the team to win a game, get out of the group and then see what happens from there,” added Riley, who at 31 is appearing at her fourth World Cup.
“This is the team that can do it 100 percent.”
Winning their first game would go a long way to washing away the last 12 months when the team was embroiled in controversy after 13 players threatened to quit if then coach Andreas Heraf remained in charge.
Heraf had been criticised for his defensive tactics in a 3-1 loss to Japan in Wellington last June but then created a firestorm when he said the Football Ferns would never be able to compete with sides at the same level as the 2011 World Cup winners.
He left the job in the middle of an investigation into the team’s culture and was replaced by former Australia and United States women’s coach Tom Sermanni last October.
The appointment of the 64-year-old Scotsman prompted former captain Abby Erceg and experienced midfielder Katie Duncan to come out of retirement for the World Cup.
It was a welcome return for Erceg, who had retired in early 2017 citing the unequal treatment of the Football Ferns and the All Whites, prompting New Zealand Football to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement last year that guaranteed parity of pay and conditions for the two sides.
“Everything we have fought for, especially in the last 12 months, this is our chance to wrap that up with a big victory,” Riley said.
“For a lot of us this could be our last World Cup, or certainly as a group together, so I think this just feels like our time.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)