New Zealand Can’t Blow This Chance To Break Its World Cup Losing Streak
10:28 AM EDT on June 26, 2023
It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament.
It's never fun to play for a host nation's World Cup team. If your team is good, and your country owns all sorts of prestigious soccer history, then the already heavy expectations just grow more burdensome. You don't want to disappoint everyone in your own home, do you? Things aren't much easier for the more traditionally underpowered teams, who still have to deal with issues related to being perceived. Those automatic qualifications can make an overmatched squad stick out, as everyone rushes to investigate their deal and determine exactly what sort of underdog we're dealing with here. Yeah, yeah, they are in the tournament, but can they actually play at all? The whole world just saw Qatar get smoked at their own tournament, after all.
The New Zealand Women's National Team, better known as the Football Ferns, would probably prefer not to have its deal investigated. That's because any such deep dive into their status in women's international soccer will reveal the following facts: The Ferns have been to five World Cups and never won a single game. They have gone 0-3-12 in their 15 group-stage games, in which they surrendered a combined 34 goals while scoring just eight. Their best performance on the World Cup stage was probably a 0-0 draw against Canada in 2015; the 5-0 beating they took from Brazil in 2007 was a low point.
But that was all in the past! you might be thinking. Just because this team has never won a single dang game at the World Cup doesn't mean they can't pull it off this time around. That is technically true, but there is also the fact that the Ferns have not won a game in almost a year. Their last win, a 2-1 victory over the Philippines in a friendly, was earned on Sept. 6, 2022. They've played 10 games since then, losing eight and drawing two. They will get to play a pre-World Cup friendly against Vietnam on July 10, which should present a golden opportunity to break the winless streak. Lose that game, though, and New Zealand will start the World Cup with its confidence as low as can be.
And yet, I saved some good news for the end. If New Zealand's goal this year is to finally claim that first World Cup victory—and why wouldn't it be?—then things have broken somewhat favorably for them. Remember how the Ferns got their last win against the the Philippines? Well, the Philippines just so happen to be in their group, and they are not very good. New Zealand can go ahead and lose to Norway and Switzerland without surrendering much dignity, but that July 25 game against the Philippines should have a big red circle around it. That's this squad's best chance to make history.
Who Is Their Star?
The answer to this question goes some way towards explaining why the Ferns haven't been able to win a game since last September. New Zealand has spent most of the last year playing without midfielder Ria Percival, who blew out her ACL and tore her meniscus in an April 2022 friendly against Australia. She has yet to make her official return to the national team, but she did return to action for her club team, Tottenham Hotspur, in April, coming off the bench for four games at the end of the season.
You might look at a player like Percival, who has notched just 15 goals in 161 appearances for the national team, and wonder what the big deal is. It's important to remember that we're not dealing with the deepest talent pool here, and there are scant few impressive goal tallies to be found anywhere on the squad. What Percival does bring to the field is plenty of experience and competence. She made her debut with the Ferns in 2007, when she was just 17 years old, and she's been a fixture on the team sheet ever since. She's also spent the last five seasons playing in the WSL, which has her tuned to a level of competition and training that most of her teammates are unfamiliar with.
Percival is just a solid midfielder who knows where to position herself, can pass the ball competently, and is prepared to scrap for possession. It's hard to get too excited about a player with that kind of profile, but their presence is vital on small-time national teams who mainly just don't want to get embarrassed on national TV when the big tournaments come around.
Oh, also, she scored one of the silliest goals of the WSL season in 2021:
Tell Me About A Cool Youngster
It's difficult to find very many cool players on this team, let alone cool youngsters, but one that might catch your eye during New Zealand's group-stage games is Grace Jale.
After high school, Jale left Auckland to pay college soccer at Wake Forest, but her collegiate career never really took off (she made six appearances for Wake Forest in 2019, scoring zero goals). She's started to get her feet under her since returning from the U.S., and now at age 24 she's becoming a key player on both the national team and her domestic club.
Jale's now in her second season playing in Australia's top professional league, the A-League. She spent the first with the Wellington Phoenix, where she started 10 games and scored six goals. She joined Canberra United on a two-year contract this past offseason, and she's made 17 starts for them this season. She's been kicking ass in those starts. She has three goals and seven assists so far, making her one of the most productive midfielders in the A-League. She's become similarly integral to the national team, for which she made her debut in 2018. She's been starting games much more frequently for the Ferns over the last year, and she should be featured in their World Cup setup.
Jale's creativity in the midfield is evident in the assist numbers she's putting up in the A-League, but she also has plenty of tools that can serve her well as a scoring option. She's a big, fast player, capable of overpowering and outrunning both domestic and international opponents.
As important as it is for a team like New Zealand to have steady operators like Percival in the lineup, it also helps to have some athletes like Jale around. Sometimes all it takes to win a World Cup game is having someone out there who can run a little faster and jump a little higher than everyone around her.
Who Is Their Enemy?
If the Ferns have a current enemy, it's the slow march of progress. Federations from microscopic nations like New Zealand can enjoy a somewhat perverse set of advantages when operating in historically overlooked and underfunded sports. Despite falling behind other countries around the world in terms of population, GDP, and infrastructure, they can still field a relatively competitive team by dint of those other countries failing to capitalize on their inherent advantages. This is how a team like the Ferns, which I must again remind you has never won a World Cup game, was as high as 16th in FIFA's international rankings as recently as 2013. All they had to do in order to achieve that ranking back then was exist, but things aren't so easy now, and New Zealand has fallen to 26th in FIFA's rankings. That spot has them in front of plenty of other teams, but for how long?
More and more money is flowing into the women's game, and more and more countries, particularly in Europe and South America, are waking up to the fact that they already have the infrastructure, tradition, and player pools necessary to spin up competent women's soccer federations. In the past, it wasn't all that strange to see the Ferns beat a team like Argentina or Portugal. Argentina is still below New Zealand in FIFA's rankings, but just beat them in back-to-back friendlies by a combined score of 3-0. Portugal sits at 21st in FIFA's rankings, and just put a 5-0 beatdown on the Ferns in their last meeting in February.
Still, the Ferns shouldn't have too much of a problem making future World Cups. They owe that security to the fact that they play their qualifiers in the absurdly weak Oceania Conference, which results in a lot of 8-0 wins over the likes of Fiji and New Caledonia. But making the World Cup loses its meaning as an achievement under such circumstances, and so it is the desire for that first World Cup win that looms. That's a goal that will become harder to achieve as the rest of the world catches up to and surpasses New Zealand, which could make this year's group-stage game against the Philippines their last best chance to end the drought.
National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool
Gotta go with Paikea here, a folk hero from the Māori tradition who exacted revenge on his treacherous brother in the most bitchin' way possible: By summoning a whale and riding it out of the ocean.
In brief, the story goes like this: Paikea, who was originally known as Kahutia-te-rangi, was the son of a god named Uenuku and brother to Ruatapu. One day, Ruatapu tried to use Kahutia-te-rangi's sacred comb, and Uenuku was like, You can't do that because you're not as cool as your brother! Put that comb down! Ruatapu was pretty bummed about this, and when Uenuku later took 70 of his sons out on a canoe for a little father-son bonding time, Ruatapu sabotaged the canoe so that it would sink in the middle of the ocean. Everyone drowned except for Kahutia-te-rangi, who recited an incantation that brought forth a humpback whale that he then rode to safety. Suck on that, Ruatapu!
Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition
The national dish of New Zealand is apparently pavlova, which is not something I would have guessed in a million years. You learn something new every day!
What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?
They have to beat the Philippines! We've been over this.