The FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ provided impetus to the women’s game in numerous nations. France, with the epic run to the semi-finals, and Japan, with their unforgettable coronation, provided obvious success stories, which helped provide momentum in their respective nations.
The same applied in New Zealand, where many of the squad have used Germany 2011 as a platform to secure contracts overseas. From just three key players domiciled abroad at the start last year, the Football Ferns now have a full team of expats overseas and, in that regard, are now beginning to mirror their male counterparts. Heading the list are a quintet plying their trade in the highly competitive German Bundesliga, while four more have spent the southern hemisphere's summer in Australia’s rapidly developing W-League.
Joining Football Ferns skipper and Wolfsburg defender Rebecca Smith in Germany have been four fellow World Cup team-mates. Powerful striker Amber Hearn and attacking colleague Sarah Gregorius have made the move, as has midfielder Katie Hoyle, while lithe defender Ria Percival was snapped up by European giants FFC Frankfurt, no less.
*National team the beneficiary *The development is, in the eyes of the nation’s technical staff, a desired new direction. Newly appointed New Zealand coach Tony Readings, who assumed the reins from John Herdman late last year, is fully supportive of the new trend, saying it can only help the advancement of players in the national team.
“Our plan even when John [Herdman] was the coach was to get as many of our players playing in the best leagues in the world as we could,” Readings told FIFA.com. “We have had an increased number of international games so the girls gained a lot of experience there, but in between games the level of football here is not comparable to some other place in the world. So we hope there will be a knock-on effect to the Football Ferns.
There are now quite a few of us playing overseas, gaining valuable experience that we can take back into the Ferns environment and make a positive impact both on and off the field.
“We have so many things which go against us in terms of resources and talent pool and so on, but one of the ways we could bridge that gap is the amount of time we could spend together as a team in a centralised programme which gave us some good cohesion and made us a tight unit. However, we weren’t exposed to the best football often enough, so the matches were a real step up."
In 2010 only two Football Ferns squad members were playing overseas – Smith and Ali Riley in USA’s WPS - with veteran midfielder Hayley Moorwood joining the elite group when she linked with England’s Chelsea early last year. “Our momentum has been building for a while and people have started to take note,” says Readings. “When we went to the World Cup there was a little bit more focus on us than before. I think some clubs saw us as an untapped market."
New experiences, new progress
But what do the players make of what is a vastly different on and off field experience? “The Bundesliga is a huge step up from club football in New Zealand and I think the closest thing to playing international football,” Hoyle of SC 07 Bad Neuenahr, told FIFA.com. “To have that level of competition week in, week out is awesome.
“The more New Zealanders playing abroad, the better it is for the Football Ferns. There are now quite a few of us playing overseas, gaining valuable experience that we can take back into the Ferns environment and make a positive impact both on and off the field.
“Playing and living as a professional in Germany is great. I love being able to put all of my time and energy into training and playing games so that I can improve every aspect of my game. It means I don't have to be as stretched as I would be in New Zealand, having to juggle football with study or work commitments.”
Former national youth team captain Kirsty Yallop has spent last season in Sweden, while young guns Betsy Hassett and Rosie White are enjoying the Californian sun with football scholarships in the highly competitive USA college environment. Meanwhile, an ever increasing number of players are not only making the relatively short trip across the Tasman Sea to Australia, but making a genuine impact. Emma Kete at firstly Perth Glory, and then at Canberra United, plus defenders Anna Green and Abby Erceg at Adelaide United have all impressed over recent months.
“We didn’t quite achieve what we wanted to do at the World Cup,” says Readings, reflecting on Germany 2011. “But I think a lot of the players stood up and showed to the watching world what they can do on the same field as the world’s best players. The upcoming Olympics may be another such chance, and perhaps even more players will make the move.”