For New Zealand, 2007 was always going to prove an historic year after the nation's women combined with their male U-20 and U-17 counterparts to claim an unprecedented hat-trick of FIFA World Cup places.
As the last of these three competition approaches, however, there is a nagging realisation that only a creditable performance in China can now prevent this year from being viewed arguably as a golden opportunity missed. Played six, lost six is, after all, the depressing combined record with which New Zealand returned from the men's U-20 and U-17 finals, and it has left the nation's women under pressure to shed the unenviable tag of World Cup also-rans.
"It's great to qualify, but you also have to be credible," Michele Cox, New Zealand's Head of Women's Football, told FIFA.com. "We know that, and we also realise that there are implications further down the line - both for us and for our confederation - if we get beaten resoundingly. It's a huge responsibility. We also want to do the competition justice. I mean, you just need to look at some of the fantastic teams who haven't qualified - France, for example - to see that it would be an insult to come here and not make the most of it."
Teenage trio tipped for the top
Fortunately, Cox - a former New Zealand international - firmly believes that her country is witnessing the emergence of a new generation of female players with both the talent and mental strength required to compete with the world's best. They hinted at their promise at last year's FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Russia, and with memories still fresh of a 0-0 draw with Brazil in that competition, Cox says that Marta and Co will hold no fears for this new crop of Kiwi stars in Tuesday's group opener.
"Absolutely not," she said, "and that's the key for us: belief. It's too easy for us to say, 'Oh, we're just little New Zealand' and get psyched out before the match has even started. That's definitely been a factor with us in the past, I think we have undoubtedly been mentally weak in big games. But I think anyone who saw our games in Russia will know that this new generation are different. They have the kind of mentality that says, 'We don't give a toss if you're Brazil, USA, whoever. We're going to give you a game'. That should stand them in great stead."
It is this same unflinching faith that prompted Cox
to overlook more obvious candidates such as Maia Jackman when
prompted to name New Zealand's players to watch, with the
spotlight instead thrown on a trio of teenagers. She said:
"You can definitely expect to see some great things at this
and future tournaments from the likes of Ali Riley and Abby Erceg,
our 17-year-old centre-back. She's just come back from playing
in the States, where they picked her out as a real star; she's
athletically very good and has real mental fortitude.
"Abby will be going with us to Chile for the Women's U-20s in 2008, and Annalie Longo - who's just turned 16 and is here with the squad - will also still be young enough to compete when we host the U-17 Women's World Cup next year. It's incredible experience for these girls and, for Annalie, who's already been to Russia with the U-20s, you look at that and think, 'What other sport could give you these opportunities?' Football's incredible for that."
Competing with the All Blacks
The beautiful game is, Cox believes, finally capturing the national imagination in New Zealand. Even now, as their beloved All Blacks compete at the Rugby World Cup, Kiwis are showing genuine interest in the fortunes of their women footballers - and uniting in support of next year's youth showpiece. "I'm really encouraged in that respect," said Cox. "The day the team left, there was a lot of attention from the TV news media back home - and that has never happened before."
Cox herself, meanwhile, is realising a long-held ambition of being selected for a FIFA Women's World Cup - although not in the role she might have originally expected. That's because, instead of turning out on the pitch, the highly-regarded 38-year-old is playing a key administrative role for the tournament's Organising Committee, a challenge she is relishing.
"It's fantastic," she said of her prestigious post. "This is my first time as part of the committee, and I think it's important that young girls can see that there are women doing well in all areas of the game. We have parity on the field in many countries now, ours included, but there aren't many women in prominent administrative roles. So yeah, I'm delighted to be here, it's a real honour."