Big guns fire warning shot

Germany and USA have combined to give New Zealand a resounding reminder of the scale of the challenge facing them on home soil at this year's inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. These two traditional giants of the women's game had been invited to compete in Auckland against Australia and the tournament hosts themselves in a 'Future Stars' competition that acted as a dress-rehearsal for the main event between 28 October and 16 November.

The quadrangular invitational event was timed to coincide with FIFA's second inspection tour of the training facilities, hotels and four proposed FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup stadiums: Auckland's North Harbour Stadium, Hamilton's Waikato Stadium, Wellington's Westpac Stadium and Christchurch's QEII Park. By involving the Germans and the US, whose senior teams have traditionally dominated the women's game, the Kiwis always knew that they were setting themselves the sternest of challenges, and so it proved.

However, as New Zealand Football Chief Executive Graham Seatter said ahead of the tournament, assembling such a formidable cast of opponents provided Paul Temple's team to best judge their own strengths and weaknesses ahead of welcoming the world.

"One of the reasons we put in a bid for the World Cup was to give our country, our football a profile, so it's great to have these countries coming to New Zealand," said Seatter. "It'll be a heck of a challenge but it's also a great opportunity to find out where we stand and where we need to get to."

USA's sister act

New Zealand entered the tournament on the back of a three-match series against Asian qualifiers Korea Republic, which had provided evidence that Temple's team were learning fast, recovering from 2-1 and 6-0 defeats to register a 1-1 draw in their final encounter. Seatter admitted, however, that the Future Stars tournament would represent "a step up in class", and this was underlined when the hosts' opening match ended in a 4-0 defeat to Germany.

The European giants had arrived on the back of some thumping European preliminary victories against the likes Norway (6-1), Israel (8-0) and Bulgaria (10-0), and their confidence was there for all to see in a one-sided encounter settled by goals from Yasmin Pietsch, Turid Knaak and a Svenja Huth double.

"Germany are a class outfit, and we need to play teams like this," admitted Temple afterwards. "They'll expose our weaknesses but we'll know where we need to be and what to expect come October."

Any hopes that they might enjoy an easier time of it against the US in their second match had all but evaporated with news of the Americans' 6-0 demolition of Australia, a match in which attacking midfielder Samantha Mewis grabbed a hat-trick and older sister Kristie featured among the other scorers. Sure enough, the US went one better than their German counterparts, racking up a comprehensive 5-0 win, the highlight of which was a brace for striker Kealia Ohai, who was celebrating her 16th birthday.

Temple was quick to praise his team's commitment while graciously acknowledging that the visitors hadn't been flattered by the scoreline, and as for his US counterpart, Kazbek Tambi, there was the chance to reflect on a job well done. "The girls have played very well and we're gelling as a team," said Tambi. "We've had the opportunity to look at all 18 players on this roster in the first two games, which has been great. On the whole, we've created a lot of good chances and put away a bunch of goals. So, so far, so good."

Germany, meanwhile, made equally light work of the Young Matildas, emerging 5-1 winners thanks to goals from Huth, Knaak, Kristine Zumbult, Annika Doppler and Alexandra Popp and setting up a winner-takes-all finale against the US. The match, which proved to be a terrific advert for women's youth football, could hardly have been any tighter, with the North Americans eventually overturning a 1-0 half-time deficit to triumph by the odd goal in five, Kristie Mewis completing a decisive double with nine minutes remaining to ensure a morale-boosting win for Tambi's team.

Strength and fitness stressed
"We asked the players to treat the games as if they were the World Cup," said the delighted US coach. "We thought this would be a tremendous opportunity to get a feel for the country, the climate and the whole soccer environment so that when we came here after qualification for the World Cup we would be ahead of the game and know what we had to look forward to."

Despite missing out on top spot, Germany's coach, Ralf Peter, was similarly enthused by his side's experiences in Auckland and noted considerable progress in their general play over the past year. "Although we lost, I am very satisfied," he said. "We were able to control the match from the start but couldn't manage to increase our lead. In the end, we deserved a draw. A year ago, we would have lost heavily to the Americans, but today we were on a par with them. Generally, I am very happy with how the tournament went."

As for the hosts, they were hoping to at least end the competition on a winning note with victory in their trans-Tasman derby against Australia, but a solitary penalty from Marianna Tabain settled another closely-contested encounter and left the Kiwis without a point or goal to their name. The narrow defeat rounded off an undeniably tough but educational few days for the Young Football Ferns, whose coach was left to reflect on an experience he labelled "a real eye-opener".

"USA and Germany were a class act and we're a few levels behind them to be honest," said Temple. "But at least the girls now know where they need to be and over the next nine months we'll be doing everything we can to get them mentally and physically prepared for this World Cup. We absolutely hammered Australia in the second half and it was by far and away the best performance we've had in the tournament. The main thing we need to work on now is our fitness and our strength, so that will be our focus for the next few months."

Future Stars Final Standings

Team

P

W

D

L

GF

GA

GD

Pts

USA

3

3

0

0

14

2

12

9

Germany

3

2

0

1

11

4

7

6

Australia

3

1

0

2

2

11

-9

3

New Zealand

3

0

0

3

0

10

-10

0