Rebecca Smith has been the rock at the back of an evolving New Zealand team for almost a decade. As captain of her country she has gained particular pride at the development of the side and the explosion of interest in the women’s game worldwide.
“The World Cup five years ago was our first major tournament and then to get into the Olympics was a huge thing for us four years ago,” Smith told FIFA.com.
“I think among the team and among the management it’s sort of assumed now that we’re going to be a staple team at the major tournaments which is where you need to be if you want to be in the top ten in the world ranking – and that’s our aim.”
Smith believes the team have come a long way since their previous showing at the Games in China four years ago. In the Ferns opening match at the tournament, they let a two-goal lead slip to draw 2-2 with Japan, the winners of the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ three years later.
“I think that four or five years ago we didn’t know what it was like to play on the world stage so we didn’t realise the significance of going two-up against Japan,” she continued. “We didn’t have the experience to hold that lead which I think we’re getting much better at. There are a lot of teams who have been at the top and are slowly going backwards or staying the same and we’re getting steadily better. It’s pretty exciting.”
The architect behind New Zealand’s metamorphosis from rank outsiders to dangerous opponents, John Herdman, left to take up the reins in Canada at the end of 2011. The London Olympics marks the first time the Kiwis have been without the charismatic Geordie at the helm - and Smith will miss having her former boss around.
“I was a little surprised [that he left],” she admitted. “But I think the opportunity is a good one for him. We are really grateful to what he brought to the programme for so many years, he really put a lot of time, energy and effort into it and now Tony [Readings] is doing a fabulous job of taking us even further.”
“Having a new voice as a leader is always a good thing after a certain amount of time so having Tony as our head coach has really brought a new fire to the team. He is developing a lot of new areas that we didn’t even know that we needed to exploit “He does a lot of research and then gives all the information to the players and lets them take control and have the responsibility. He allows the players to set goals for themselves and challenges us to become better.
“He uses all the resources like our sports scientists and our video analysis to make sure that he’s getting the best out of each individual player. I think we now play with a more mature style of football. I would say that Tony’s more enabling style of coaching really fits our team at this point.”
The Football Ferns take on Team GB in Cardiff on 25 July and Smith knows it will be quite an occasion.
“To play Great Britain in the opening game of the entire Olympics, it doesn’t get any better than that,” she smiled. “When we played against China in the World Cup in 2007, that was one of our most memorable games ever just because they were the host nation and the stadium was totally full. Playing against any host nation is an amazing experience - one that you can’t describe and will never forget.”
Looking forward to the excitement around the London Games gives Smith a chance to look at the progression of the women’s game since she started her career.
“When I first started in 2004 there weren’t that many leagues in the world where you could go and play professionally,” she said. “If you did, then you might have to work on the side to be able to live and there wasn’t any security that you would be getting paid from week to week. Nowadays, if you look at our national team I think we have eight or nine overseas players and it’s fabulous to see that.
“The Bundesliga in Germany has grown so much, the Swedish league has grown too. The English league has just started and obviously that’ll be growing. In terms of professional women’s leagues around the world I think that’s been the single biggest development that I’ve seen. People are beginning to invest more in women’s football and take it seriously as a sport that’s fun to watch.”