New Zealand captain Abby Erceg has made a habit of leading the way. In 2014 she became the first New Zealander – male or female – to reach 100 caps. The central defender will soon have the honour of captaining her country at an Olympic Games when the Football Ferns walk out for their Rio 2016 opener against reigning gold medallists USA in Belo Horizonte.
Rio 2016 will be a sixth global tournament for Erceg at senior level over a nine-year year period stretching back to the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup™. Pre-dating all those achievements was an appearance at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2006 and, in keeping with the theme, Erceg scored New Zealand’s first-ever goal at that level in Russia.
Erceg, who boasts both Maori and Croatian heritage, says the U-20 Women’s World Cup played a pivotal role in her development – one which still resonates today. "The 20s experience was massive for me,” Erceg told FIFA.com. “It gives you the tools you need to develop yourself as a player, to play at senior international level, and you also get a lot of individual training so that helps with your technique which you can carry on throughout your career. A lot of the stuff (training) I learnt then, I still do now and I have continued throughout my career.”
And Erceg, who much like her on-pitch demeanour speaks with a calm and composed manner, believes the U-20 Women’s World Cup is a crucial development step for aspiring senior internationals. “The 20s was a huge learning experience,” she said. “I hadn’t played at international level at all prior. When I first made the senior team at just 16 I thought ‘there is no way I could ever make it at this level, it’s too hard’. The gap between 20s and senior was huge, but I think the gap has probably closed a little bit now with the development of women’s football around the world.”
New Zealand’s current crop of U-20 players will have a rare opportunity to compete at global level in their own region when Papua New Guinea hosts their maiden FIFA tournament later this year. It will conclude yet another busy period for New Zealand women’s football, following on from Rio 2016 and the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan.
The first step, though, will be Rio where New Zealand have been drawn into a fiercely competitive group alongside USA, France and Colombia. Four years ago proved to be a breakthrough tournament for the Football Ferns, as they achieved a new high with a quarter-final appearance at London 2012.
Currently plying her trade at Western New York Flash in USA’s highly-competitive NWSL, Erceg says thoughts of the upcoming Olympic Games are a constant. “It is always in the back of the mind,” she said. “Thoughts of where can I improve, or what can I do so that when I get to Rio I can best help the team. It is a huge focus.
“The fact is that every team is always improving,” Erceg says, when asked about New Zealand’s growing status on the world stage. “We have got some good results, but so has every team. We have two of the top three teams in the world (USA and France) in our group, so we are probably going to have to outperform anything we have done before.”
One thing New Zealand doesn’t lack is experience. Their starting side for their recent internationals against Australia, boasted a combined tally of some 900 caps. It is a remarkable figure for any international team, and Erceg says the challenge is to make the most of that know-how.
“In previous tournaments we have lacked experience, we have been a team that would play our hearts out and hope to get a result,” said Erceg. “Now, we are one of the most experienced. It is a huge weapon for us, and hopefully we can use it to our advantage. We do have a lot of experience and a lot of players that have knowledge of how we can hurt these teams.”