New Zealand won through to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Canada 2014 but the journey was perhaps not as straight forward as expected. The Kiwis collected three wins from as many starts in the five-day tournament in Auckland - which also featured Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Tonga – but were forced to work overtime in their latter two matches.

Saturday’s 3-0 win over Papua New Guinea in a winner-takes-all final match ensured New Zealand are bound for their fifth successive appearance at the tournament. It is an event in which the Kiwis have more than held their own in the past. Although yet to win through to the knockout stage at the tournament, they have claimed several credible results, notably drawing against a highly-polished Japan side on their own soil two years ago.

Tight contests
While landslide scorelines have occasionally marked previous Oceanian qualifying tournament, the 2014 edition of the U-20 Championship was notable for its close contests. The opening day aside, where New Zealand trounced a youthful Vanuatu with 12 unanswered goals, tight matches proved the norm. The home side managed just a 3-1 victory over Tonga, before a final day 3-0 win over Papua New Guinea, which was much tighter than the scoreline suggested. Overall the New Zealanders netted ten goals less than they did in their three qualifying matches two years ago.

“PNG came to the game with a lot of energy and made life difficult for us, which is exactly what we want,” said New Zealand coach Aaron McFarland after the final match of the tournament. “I think a lot of kudos has to go to the island nations where they’re putting a lot of resources into the women’s game and it’s paying dividends.”

Papua New Guinea have long been New Zealand’s main regional challengers in women’s football, and they again took it to their rivals, staying in the hunt for unlikely World Cup berth until the dying minutes when two late goals ended the contest. Belinda Van Noorden opened the scoring in the tenth minute, while substitute Jasmine Pereira finally extended the margin with four minutes remaining and an injury-time own goal rounding out the action.

Earlier on the final day, Tonga saw off Vanuatu with four unanswered goals as the Polynesians recorded their maiden win amid joyous scenes.

Preparing for the world stage
McFarland, who led the Junior Football Ferns at Japan 2012, says he will now aim to spend more time with the group as they refine their game ahead of the World Cup. “There’ll be a group working in Auckland and some based in the United States,” said McFarland. (We will be) working with all the individuals on all the programmes so that come the World Cup and beyond, which is really important as well, they’re as technically competent as possible.”

Further evidence of improving standards among the Island nations came with the announcement of the OFC U-20 Championship awards. Papua New Guinea’s Meagan Gunemba secured the Golden Ball for player of the tournament, after showcasing an impressive display of wide-ranging talent. New Zealand striker Emma Rolston was the Golden Boot winner with her four goals, while Tonga goalkeeper Tangimausia Ma’afu was named the tournament’s best goalkeeper.