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Powerhouses And Underdogs

This year from 28 October to 16 November, the first-ever FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup will be held in four cities in New Zealand. The hosts certainly have the potential to cause some upsets on the pitch.

New Zealand is better known for its hulking great rugby players and rugged sailors than it is for football. But later this “, this strongly felt sporting identity may take on a different and more feminine slant when the future stars of international women’s football take to he fields of the southernmost Oceanic nation’s finest stadiums to compete for the first ever FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.
The newest addition to FIFA’s glittering portfolio of World Cup events will be held from 28 October to 16 November 2008 in four cities, of which two (Auckland and Christchurch) were venues for the successful men’s version of the FIFA U-17 World Cup held in New Zealand just under a decade ago. The North Harbour Stadium on Auckland’s sandy North Shore won an award for best venue at the 1999 event and once again, the 25,000 capacity, multi-purpose facility will host the opening game and finals, as well as the firs: two games of the New Zealand team.
Drawn against Colombia, Canada and Denmark, a fairy-tale run to the next stage for the hosts will be a hard ask. New Zealand coach Paul Temple comments, “It is definitely a tough group. Colombia are the South American champions, and given the strength of football in that region, I think they start as favourites. Canada and Denmark are powerhouses of the women’s game and have good records at major tournaments. So it is going to be a massive challenge and we will certainly be underdogs. But what really counts is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. We certainly have the chance to cause some upsets and
do well against the more fancied teams in our group.”
The mixed bag of results in New Zealand’s preparation matches indeed suggests that the hosts could potentially cause some upsets. Starting their pro¬gramme in July 2007, the New Zealand U-17 squad took part in the Australian National Youth Championships, playing state teams a year older in age. Making the semi-finals in Australia, New Zealand went on to play Korea Republic in a tri-series at home in December 2007, chalking up a 1-1 draw and 2-1 and 6-0 losses. A month later, New Zealand again hosted the quadrangular Future Stars tournament and suffered further losses against perennial favourites USA (5-0) and Germany (4-0) as well as against trans-Tasman neighbours Australia {1 -0), over whom they then went on to enjoy back-to-back 4-0 wins in April, More recently, they were on the wrong side of a 4-0 scoreline against Paraguay in Asuncion, but quickly turned it around 72 hours later with a hard-fought 1-1 draw.
“The main frustration I have had has been our inconsistency in performances,” adds Temple. “But this is to be expected with players who are still very young in football terms. We have also had quite a few injuries and haven’t been able to put
the best eleven on the pitch yet, but it is also encouraging because we have more
to come.”
What the New Zealand team has in store will hopefully be out in force when they play the third game of the first round against Colombia in Wellington. The capital city is the home of New Zealand’s only professional football team (Wellington Phoenix who play in the Australian A-League) and is well known for really getting behind sporting events. The support of the locals will be crucial to filling the 35,000 capacity, state-of-the-art Wellington Stadium (or Cake Tin as it is often labelled due to its appearance from above). Wellington residents also have other reasons to come out in droves — playing in their city are crowd favourites Brazil and England, as well as Nigeria and Korea Republic, in what will be an extremely exciting group to watch.
Tighter still may be the matches between the Group C teams, which will be played in Christchurch. It is anyone’s guess who will advance from France, the USA, Paraguay and Japan, but the USA have had strong results in their warm-up games (including a 2-1 win over Germany in the Future Stars tournament in New Zealand) and Japan, who were top qualifiers in Asia, could have a slight edge over the rest of the group.
Favourites to move through to the quarter-finals are Germany and Korea DPR from Group B. In addition to these two title contenders, Hamilton – the smallest host city of the four — will also enjoy African and Central American flair with Ghana and Costa Rica respectively making up the group. The teams will play in the recently renovated Waikato stadium and will no doubt experience the best of the rural region’s hospitality.
Regardless of who goes through from these four well-balanced groups, the New Zealand public will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the future stars of women’s football – the budding Martas and Birgit Prinzes. This is bound to be an extra treat for the very high ratio of female players in New Zealand (a third of junior players are girls and a quarter of all adult players are women) as well as a considerable opportunity for the sport to demonstrate its true international flavour and significant development over the past decade. This opportunity is not lost on New Zealand Football chairman Frank van Hattum: “Hopefully we will have a successful tournament that meets the high objectives we have set ourselves. Of equal importance is that everyone involved will go away having had a wonderful experience. The learning experience for coaches, players and administrators is also an important outcome. We fully expect to see more people exposed to the game, to try it, be excited by it and feel good about it.”
The young women who will be proudly representing Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand, which means “land of the long white cloud”) at the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup are adamant that they will also be doing their very best to inspire a future generation of footballers. The parting words about what this World Cup means to them is best left in their hands:
Fifteen-year-old Rosie White on what she would like New Zealand to achieve in this tournament: “I would love the Young Football Ferns to get through the
group stages and make a bit of history in New Zealand.”
Seventeen-year-old Annalie Longo (who is already a veteran of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Russia 2006 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup China 2007) on what will be different about this FIFA World Cup™ for her: “Playing a FIFA World Cup™ in your own country Having friends and family there to support you, and playing in my own age group is pretty exciting.”
Seventeen-year-old Caitlin Campbell (who played in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Russia) on what it will be like to play in front of a home crowd: “We are all really excited at the thought of playing in front of a home crowd. Not many people get to play a FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in their home country and we are lucky enough to have the first-ever FIFA U-17 Women’s tournament here. It’s going to be a huge adrenaline rush but we are going to savour every minute of it.”
Seventeen-year-old captain Briony Fisher on the same question: “This is the first-ever FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup and it’s being held in New Zealand. Sometimes I think I am dreaming as I can’t believe I have this incredibly rare opportunity to show the world how Kiwis play football. I get to play the sport I love on home soil in front of my friends and family and all of our supporters, while showing young Kiwi footballers what opportunities lie ahead of them.”