After an historic year in 2007 that saw New Zealand represented at three FIFA world finals by their U-17 and U-20 men's sides together with their senior women, 2008 brings the opportunity to consolidate and improve on those achievements on home soil. The onus is therefore on Paul Temple's team - the 'Young Football Ferns', as they are known - to succeed at the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup where their fellow Kiwi finalists failed last year: by advancing beyond the group stage.
Although rugby has traditionally dominated its sporting landscape, New Zealand has one of the highest number of female football players-per-capita of all 208 FIFA member associations, and the hope is that it can follow the lead of other 'new' football nations such as USA and Canada by using women's football to champion the beautiful game.
It should certainly help that the Young Football Ferns have an undisputed star in the shape of Annalie Longo, whose extensive top-level experience belies her tender years. It is certainly a measure of the diminutive midfielder's talent that, although she will not turn 17 until July, she already has experience of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Russia 2006 and last year's senior equivalent in China. Even more impressive is the fact that she could complete a remarkable 'full house' by the end of the year if, as expected, she appears at the Beijing Olympics before going on to lead the Young Football Ferns at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup.
Longo became New Zealand's youngest full international when she was first selected for the senior women's side at just 15, and by turning out against Denmark in China she became the second-youngest player - male or female - to have played at a FIFA World Cup.
"She's one that excels from a technical point of view really," is how U-17 women's coach Paul Temple describes the talented youngster. "I think she's got a rare ability to be composed under pressure, she retains the ball well and she has very good balance when she plays. I think that sort of separates her from a lot of the other players."
Nevertheless, while Longo is far from the only promising player within the Young Football Ferns' ranks, the scale of the task facing Temple and his team has been emphatically underlined during their preparations for the tournament. These effectively began last July with a moderately successful trip across the Tasman for the Australian National Youth Championships, and moved up a gear when they faced up to fellow finalists Korea Republic for a three-match series.
The South Koreans, who finished third at the Asian
preliminaries, proved too strong in the sides' first two
meetings, winning 2-1 and 6-0, but there were encouraging sings
when New Zealand bounced back to finish with a creditable 1-1 draw.
Determined to test themselves against the best, Temple and his
players then went toe-to-toe with women's football's two
traditional superpowers, Germany and USA, in a four-team Future
Stars Tournament in Auckland comprised by old rivals Australia.
It proved a harsh lesson in strength, stamina and clinical finishing as the Americans and Germans ran out comfortable winners, ruthlessly exposing the Kiwis' weaknesses. This brutal education, however, was exactly what Temple had envisaged and despite also watching his side succumbing to a narrow and undeserved defeat to Australia in their final match, the young England-born coach believes he can now target the team's most glaring shortcomings to ensure they give the home fans something to cheer in October and November.
New Zealand qualified as hosts and will represent OFC at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup.
Born in Sussex, England in 1982, Paul Temple is certainly among the youngest coaches in international football, but he has made a real name for himself in New Zealand since emigrating in 1996. As a player, he turned out as an age-group representative for Sussex, his home county in Britain, before moving to New Zealand and joining Western Springs AFC.
His first coaching roles came in 2003 with the Auckland U-16
girls and U-15 boys, teams he has enjoyed notable success with in
the years since. Since 2005, Temple has also been in charge of New
Zealand Girls' Secondary Schools and coach of Western
Springs' top flight women's team, taking them to their
first-ever national cup title in 2007. He was appointed coach of
the national U-20 side in December 2006.
What they said
"USA and Germany were a class act and we're a few levels behind them to be honest. 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. 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," coach Paul Temple, speaking after January's Future Stars Tournament.