Oceanians eye ticket to Germany

With strong development at youth and senior level over recent years, New Zealand will enter the Oceania qualifying competition for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ quietly confident of playing alongside the world’s elite in Germany next year. The New Zealanders are seeking successive appearances on the world stage for the first time, this after returning to the tournament in 2007 following a 16-year absence.

Hopeful of upsetting the traditional order in Oceania are Vanuatu, Tahiti and the Cook Islands, who have been drawn alongside New Zealand's Football Ferns in Group A. The other group features Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Tonga with the eight-nation tournament starting tomorrow, before concluding with semi-finals and then the final on 8 October.

Kiwis well-prepared
New Zealand have left no stone unturned in their preparations, with coach John Herdman selecting his strongest possible squad including four overseas-based players for the ten-day Auckland-based tournament. The most notable inclusion is Ali Riley, with the rising star of New Zealand football jetting in from the USA, where her FC Gold Pride side claimed the WPS title on Sunday. The left-sided defender was recently named the best new player in a league which features many of the world’s biggest female stars. Though only 22, Riley is already a seasoned international having featured in all of the Football Ferns matches at China 2007 and gone on to represent her country at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Football Tournament.

Other notable figures in the Kiwi ranks are captain and new Chelsea signing Hayley Moorwood, Wolfsburg defender Rebecca Smith and Sweden-based midfielder Kirsty Yallop. “Something like 130 countries entered the qualifiers and only 16 reach the finals in Germany,” said Herdman. “Coming into this event we know the opposition will be tough and while it’s not like playing a USA or Germany, there are things on and off the pitch that we are working on getting right while we have this time together.”

Island challenge
Of the contenders aiming to claim New Zealand’s crown, Papua New Guinea look best equipped to mount a serious challenge. Coach Francis Moyap’s team picked up the South Pacific Games title in 2007 and have long been considered the benchmark for women’s football among the island nations. Lydia Banabas struck eight goals in just six matches at the Games three years ago and is back to terrorise opposing defences again, as are seven other veterans of that campaign.

Women’s football has strong pedigree in PNG, with the national team entering the qualifiers for the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991. They finished runners-up as hosts of the last event in 2007 and came third four times in a row (from 1991 to 2003). The New Zealanders could only claim a 2-0 winning margin against PNG when the pair last met in a contest that decided qualification for China 2008.

Fiji are likely to throw up the strongest challenge to the Papuans, having defeated them at the last South Pacific Games, the only team to do so. The pair will do battle in their opener on Thursday with the result likely to be pivotal to the outcome of Group B. The Solomons will be looking to make the most of a rare international outing by showing they can match the significant advances made by their male counterparts in recent years.

“There are a lot of good players in all the teams and the games will be very entertaining to watch,” said Oceania Football Confederation General Secretary Tai Nicholas. “Women’s football in the Oceania region has made massive strides in recent years and this tournament will showcase how much progress has been made.”