Kiwis impress en route to Oceania crown

New Zealand’s steadily growing status in women’s football has been reflected in their emphatic qualification for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012. The Junior Football Ferns roared past all three opponents racking up a record scoreline in the process of reaching their fourth successive appearance on the world stage.

The four-nation tournament was held over five days in Auckland, with New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and Samoa joining the hosts in the field. New Zealand though were in irresistible form totalling 28 goals in their three matches, including a tournament record 12-0 triumph over Samoa. It proved a joyful week for the locals as their U-17 national team reached Azerbaijan 2012 with that qualifying tournament held concurrently, also in New Zealand biggest city.

Islanders’ tough challenge
Papua New Guinea have long been regarded as the main challengers to New Zealand’s continental hegemony but their campaign was effectively over within 90 minutes. With only one established senior international amid their ranks, Sandra Birum, PNG crashed to a 6-0 defeat against the Junior Football Ferns. The Papuans, though, to their credit, recovered to draw with Samoa and then defeat New Caledonia 4-2 for a second-placed finish.

New Caledonia, fielding five players that won silver at last year’s Pacific Games on home turf, overwhelmed Samoa on the opening day with the three points enough to secure third place. Les Cagous forward Marie Heutro finished the tournament with five goals, to be second only to prolific New Zealand skipper Rosie White who hit eight goals. It was White’s second top goalscorer award, having also achieved the feat two years ago, while team-mate Kate Loye received the coveted Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player.

Kiwis aim high
Now a strong looking New Zealand side will be looking to build on a tournament that has proven to be a relatively happy hunting ground in the past. The Junior Football Ferns were competitive despite a group stage exit at Germany 2010, while two years earlier in Chile the team were on the verge of becoming the first from the nation to reach the knockout stage of a FIFA tournament, only to concede a heart-breaking injury-time equaliser against England.

Remarkably White is a veteran of both those campaigns and is now set to lead the Kiwis in her third tournament. Also an established senior international, White, alongside Nadia Peal and Katie Rood, is one of three players already based overseas, while a number of others are set to take up university scholarships in the United States this year.

“We are all pretty excited and can’t wait to go to the World Cup,” said White. “I think we will do well in Japan. We still have room for improvement, but this is a really strong team.”

Coach Aaron McFarland, who will be making his FIFA tournament debut, remained more circumspect about the looming task this August and September in Japan. “It (the qualifying tournament) is another stepping stone on the way to one of our goals,” he said. “We’ve tried to keep standards high throughout the week and focus on how we want to play. Over time we’ll review this tournament and see where we can make further improvement.”