Erceg: We're ready for next step
© AFP

When the sun sets over the horizon on the Pacific coastal town of Coquimbo, the fresh sea breeze can cause a certain chill to descend. However, there is nothing remotely cold or icy about the atmosphere at the New Zealand team hotel. The dining room rings with laughter, and each witty quip is followed by an equally giggle-inducing rejoinder. Finally, it is time for a guitar to be produced.

"We always sing a song in the Maori language, which gives us a real feeling of togetherness and belonging. We're a very lively bunch," Abby Erceg explains to FIFA.com, a broad grin written across her face. The 18-year-old, who already boasts 30 senior caps and appeared at both the FIFA Women's World Cup 2007 and the Olympic Football Tournament earlier this year, knows very well that the joyful mood in the young Football Ferns' camp on the eve of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Chile 2008 is not without good cause.

"We may be the youngest team at the tournament, but we actually have a lot of experience. A number of our players have already taken part at a tournament or two. Before Russia 2006 we didn't really know what to expect, but we've progressed since then and we're more confident now. We're ready to take the next step," Erceg states, recalling a recent success. "At the U-17 World Cup in our country just a few days ago, our girls ran up New Zealand's first-ever win at a FIFA Women's World Cup. We want to ride the wave of euphoria and get through the group stage."

As she enunciates this unquestionably ambitious target, the New Zealand defender appears far from just going through the motions. As one of the more experienced members of the squad, she is fully aware of the quality in the team. "We're a good attacking side, and we'll concentrate our efforts on getting forward." Erceg makes no secret of the fact that the Oceania side's hopes rest largely on the youthful 15-year-old shoulders of Rosie White, who recently scored all three New Zealand goals in the historic 3-1 victory over Colombia at the U-17 tournament: "We all support her, because we need her to stay in peak form here. She's a gem."

Sparkling attacking play is not the New Zealanders' solitary weapon in Chile, Erceg says, as the team is already inspired by the tide of emotion washing over the host nation at the coming festival of football. "Wherever we go in the team bus, we see football pitches everywhere. The people here really love our sport, which is why we feel so much at home. It'll be fantastic playing in front of such passionate supporters. It'll give us another real boost."

Naturally, the Football Ferns have plenty of respect for their Group A opponents. The defender, who also has a real nose for goal, explicitly warned her team-mates to beware Nigeria, their first opponents in Coquimbo on Wednesday: "It'll be our most difficult match. They're very athletic, and they can take you completely by surprise with moments of individual skill."

The opportunity for a spot of gentle pre-match espionage has already presented itself, as New Zealand and Nigeria are quartered in the same hotel. Erceg and her team-mates will do everything in their power to ensure New Zealand do not merely set the tone musically in the accommodation they share with their first opponents, but also call the tune out on the field of play.