New Zealand face a rigorous examination at July’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, but they are not fazed by the prospect of taking on the elite. Last month’s draw pitted the Junior Football Ferns against Brazil, 2008 runners-up Korea DPR and European heavyweights Sweden.
A steady rise up the pecking order of women's football in recent years has enhanced New Zealand's confidence, especially on the back of strong performances at both of FIFA’s youth tournaments two years ago. They managed a maiden victory in a FIFA women's competition with a 3-1 defeat of Colombia at the FIFA U-17 World Cup on home soil, before collecting four points in the first phase of that year's FIFA U-20 World Cup, only to agonisingly miss out on qualification due to a last-gasp England equaliser in their final group game.
Striker Rosie White, a star performer from those two breakthrough showings, displayed typical Kiwi fortitude when asked about the Germany 2010 draw. “It’s pretty tough, but all the groups are going to be tough and I think it’s possible (for us to progress),” she said. “We are aiming to get into the next round and become the first New Zealand team to make it out of the group stage, and then see how we can go from there.”
Despite her tender years – White only turns 17 next month – the Aucklander has already achieved much at international level. She bagged a hat-trick in the historic win over Colombia and followed it up with another treble against the host nation at Chile 2008. The glut of goals helped the youngster to the OFC Oceania Player of the Year title at just 15, where she shared the podium with All Whites goal machine Shane Smeltz.
White is now a regular member of the senior national team, with a dozen appearances accrued already despite lengthy absences due to a knee reconstruction and stress fractures. The rise through international football continued for White in February, when she played all four matches for the Football Ferns in their impressive march to the final of the Cyprus Cup after overcoming Italy, Scotland and the Netherlands.
“Personally, I just want to try and be consistent in every game and score goals for the team,” White said somewhat reticently of her ambitions for Germany 2010. “I want to go to the Olympics and the Women’s World Cup with the senior team, so they are goals, but my ultimate goal would be to play professionally overseas.”
While the New Zealanders may not have the traditional pedigree possessed by their group opponents, they will not lack for cohesion. Nearly all the players featured in one - or even both - of the FIFA women's youth tournaments two years ago. The squad have also been training together regularly with all players based in Auckland or its surroundings, with those players from the capital Wellington having moved there to join the group.
“We are definitely coming together well and I think we will be good by the World Cup,” said White, perhaps mindful that the Kiwis have some unfinished business from 2008 after their last-ditch elimination.
Tony Readings' side will have a gauge of their progress when they face perennial women’s football superpowers USA next week. The Junior Football Ferns open their campaign against Sweden in Bielefeld on 13 July, face former champions Korea DPR at the same venue three days later, and move to Dresden thereafter to round off their first phase against Brazil.