Rebecca Smith, one of New Zealand’s most seasoned campaigners, is set for a starring role when the Football Ferns make their third appearance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ finals this summer. The 29-year-old tasted the flair and excitement of the showcase event at the China 2007 edition, and now says she can hardly wait for the latest global showdown in Germany. As an added bonus, the tournament takes place in the country where the defender plays her club football, as she appears in the Women’s Bundesliga for VfL Wolfsburg.
"It’s a special World Cup for me this year, because it’s in Germany. I’ve lived here for over two years now. It feels more like a home World Cup, because I know a lot of the tournament and the organisation that’s gone into it. I think the excitement that’s building for this World Cup is really huge,” Smith exclusively told FIFA.com.
Smith’s enthusiastic choice of words betrays her keen sense of anticipation ahead of the sixth FIFA Women’s World Cup. "It will be fun to see how this all plays out after four years of preparation. I’m really looking forward to all the fans and the excitement building up around the games. They have a lot of festivals planned."
The player, formerly on the books at FFC Frankfurt, FSV Frankfurt, Swedish top flight outfit Sunnana SK and Newcastle Jets in Australia, is excited at the prospect of a reunion with former team-mates. "After playing in four different countries, I have a lot of friends in the world. It’ll be fun to watch my friends play against other friends."
There is no denying that the Kiwis face a challenge to emerge from the group stage. "Japan has done a lot of team rebuilding specially for the World Cup and they will be one of the top teams at the tournament. We reckon they’ll be our hardest opponents. England always has a strong team and strong players. Mexico is kind of the wild card. They’re pretty confident and their motivation will be very, very high. But we’re happy with our group,” Smith summarised.
The much-travelled stopper feels the host nation are favourites to claim the trophy. "Their preparations for the World Cup are among the best. The league is very strong. The German national team has really fantastic players. I think they’re not leaving any stone unturned to ensure success at this tournament. But anything can happen at a big tournament like the World Cup, and that’s what makes it exciting."
Smith believes USA are due a good tournament too, although she senses a few shock results in the pipeline. "The US is always a strong team, they have a huge pool of talent. Pia Sundhage is a fantastic coach and has a solid team. But I think we’ll see plenty of games where the results weren’t to be expected. There could be some big upsets in terms of FIFA rankings – lower teams beating higher teams. It’s hard to say who is really good, although Germany and USA are the top two teams.
In terms of her own team’s prospects, the approachable centre-back is nothing if not upbeat. "As a player you have to believe that you can do really well. We’re hoping to get out of our group, and I believe we can. We have the preparation and the talent to do that, and possibly go even further. I don’t want to say too much though and sound cocky. We’re a small country, only four million inhabitants. But we work really hard, and we’ve developed so much in the last five years. We’ll surprise some people with the kind of football we play. We’ll be an eye-opener for the world."
The very special Kiwi mentality could hand New Zealand the edge, Smith believes. "Kiwis are pretty laid back and easy-going people in general. They don’t like to say too much, they don’t like to boast and they’re very modest. This team has quite a unique mentality, combining the Kiwi laid-back mentality with really strong work ethics and strong belief. We're a mentally strong team, even if we are really young. This team really believes in itself, and that’s very important."
Key to the Kiwis
Smith’s pride, determination and fighting spirit are beyond question, and her experience is second to none, so it came as no surprise when national coach John Herdman recently described her as his "key player" in an exclusive FIFA.com interview.
"I was captain of the team until the last World Cup, and then I became a kind of joint captain. I’m a pretty strong leader, and quite vocal. A team really needs someone they can look to in uncertain situations where there’s a risk of panic. As a centre-back you’re always helping and directing how the game is going. I just try and hold the defence together, and bring confidence to the team. Some of the girls don’t have that much international and playing experience. I try to be calm at a time that’s quite nerve-wracking,” said Smith, acknowledging her position high up the dressing room hierarchy. "I’m a defender, so I guess my main aim is to concede as few goals as possible. The fewer, the better!"
For all Smith’s optimism, the Football Ferns’ preparations for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany has not started as well as it might have. Herdman’s side beat Switzerland 2-1 in the group stages of the prestigious Cyprus Cup, but lost their two remaining first round games. The seventh-place play-off ended in a sobering 5-0 defeat to Germany 2011 hopefuls and group stage opponents Mexico.
However, if there are to be setbacks in the build-up to a major tournament, many would argue it is best to get them out of the way early – and plenty of future champions have suffered warm-up defeats prior to the action starting for real. If Smith and the Football Ferns can peak at the right moment, perhaps we will actually get to read the words the player herself picked as the headline she would like to see at the FIFA Women’s World Cup: "Kiwi women’s team surprises the football world!"