Hosts China apart, no country competing at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament had a more straightforward path than New Zealand. The Football Ferns needed only a 2-0 win over Oceania rivals Papua New Guinea to qualify for Beijing, but they are aware that Japan, Norway and the USA will provide a much sterner test.
English coach John Herdman, however, is quick to point out that his group rivals are not without their weaknesses as well. "In women's football, Japan, Norway and the USA have all been up and down during the year," he pointed out. "The USA have been the most consistent, but conceding four goals against Australia [on 3 May, in Birmingham] shows that they're not invincible."
Australia, for so long New Zealand's chief rival in Oceania, are now competing in the Asian Confederation. Despite this enforced separation, the Matildas remain regular sparring partners for the Football Ferns, and their most recent encounter, in Sydney on 12 June, ended in a narrow 1-0 victory for the Australians. The Ferns dominated much of the game, and given Australia's notable run at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007, Herdman is entitled to draw some confidence from the match.
Like their male counterparts, the Ferns are hoping that their physical strength will be a trump card against the more fancied nations in Group G, and they are glad to be playing the Japanese first. "Japan's style of play will suit our own style of pressure and physical dominance," said Herdman.
While the first game will obviously be critical for Herdman's charges, he is not ruling out an upset against the group favourites either. "When you talk about fairytales, the USA could be a real target for us. I watched them at the Peace Queen Cup [in Korea Republic in June] and wasn't overly impressed. On the other hand, we might already have qualified by then, and be able to rest our key players!"
Herdman has picked a very young squad for the tournament, with no fewer than eight players under the age of 20. Distinguished veterans of China 2007 such as defender Maia Jackman and striker Wendi Henderson are no longer there: the goalscoring burden is likely to fall upon tall, powerful forward Amber Hearn, who has shown herself particularly adept at holding the ball up. Captain Hayley Moorwood believes, however, that finishing is the team's chief deficiency at the moment. "
Although only 24, Moorwood will provide much-needed experience to complement the freshness and fearlessness of the young squad. She insists that the team will not be distracted by the excitement of appearing at the Olympic Games: "The whole Olympic experience is going to be very exciting, but we're there to concentrate on getting to the quarter-finals." Despite this, she and the others are determined to enjoy the experience. "We're going to really take it in. It will be huge for us."
New Zealand are currently concluding their Olympic preparations with two matches in Singapore. After thumping their host nation 14-0 on 23 July, they face Canada in a final warm-up game today.