By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand captain Ali Riley is aware of the pressure on her team to win a game at next month’s women’s World Cup in France but feels it is nothing compared to having spent much of her career fighting for recognition of the team and women’s sport.
The Football Ferns, who are ranked 19th, have qualified for their fourth successive World Cup finals but have yet to win a game at the global showpiece.
Attention for soccer in the rugby-mad country also tends to focus on the men’s side even though the All Whites have only qualified for two finals, in 1982 and 2010.
The primary focus on women’s team sport in New Zealand has also been on netball, hockey and cricket, while the world champion Black Ferns rugby side were getting more attention as the country attempts to address gender equity imbalances.
“For us as women it’s about empowering other women and there is pressure every day to grow the sport,” Riley told a conference call before their friendly against world champions United States in St. Louis.
“(But) if anything there was more pressure when people weren’t paying attention to women in sport.
“This is the time for us to push for more recognition and better treatment … for any organisation that is trying to get young girls involved we need to make sure that we’re out there and showing them that it’s possible.”
The 31-year-old Riley is approaching her fourth women’s World Cup with the Football Ferns having notched up 123 caps since she made her debut as a 19-year-old in 2007.
The Chelsea defender had been a bit wide-eyed at the 2007 tournament in China and like some of her fellow stalwarts like Abby Erceg, Ria Percival and Katie Duncan, felt back then that they were along to “enjoy the ride”.
With six players in Tom Sermanni’s squad having accumulated more than 100 caps each, two others in the 90s and six more having played more than 50 games, Riley felt this was the best Football Ferns side she had been a part of.
“You had a group of us (in 2007) who had just played for the under-20s all of a sudden on the senior team and having no idea what to expect, having never played at that kind of level or that many people watching us,” she said.
“That felt like an experience where we were there to enjoy the ride and see what it meant to play a World Cup.
“The expectations now are so much higher. A lot of us are older. We are in the best shape of our lives. We play for very competitive teams in very competitive professional leagues.
“I think on the emotional and mental side of it, knowing what to expect … we know much more about what needs to be done to win a game and get out of the group.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)