February 17, 2004
New Zealand women tackling some of world's best
by Jeremy Ruane
It would be a brave man who would expect to see New Zealand returning home from Brisbane next week with the Australia Cup in hand, such is the inexperience of the squad. But by the same token, the potential of the players is such that, if they perform to that potential in all three of their matches - against Australia, China and North Korea - they are well capable of influencing the outcome of who will finish runners-up to the last-mentioned country, this writer¹s tip to prevail over the course of the action at QE2 (formerly ANZ) Stadium.
North Korea's squad boasts four players who've each made over 100 appearances for their country - all twenty of their players have appeared on the international stage, and they have collectively made over one thousand appearances. Their squad boasts just four teenagers, but is easily the most experienced of the four teams on show, with strikers Jin Pyol Hui (67 goals from 70 internationals) and Ri Kum Suk (58 from 65) certain to be eager to maintain their close to a goal-a-game ratios in Brisbane.
The Asian Cchampions experience contrasts starkly with that of China, which has a combined total of just 51 caps - nine of their players are brand new to international football, compared with ten of the eighteen players named in the New Zealand squad. This is an extremely young Chinese squad - the oldest player has only just turned nineteen, while the youngest is just fifteen. It's pretty clear to me they are looking at this squad with the 2007 Women's World Cup Finals and the 2008 Olympic Games - both of which they host - in mind. However, the bulk of these players performed in the recent Chinese Quadrangular Tournament, where they drew with the USA and Sweden, and defeated Canada. After the Australia Cup, they'll head to Germany for a friendly against the world champs, before participating in the Algarve Cup, and then taking part in the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in April. Make no mistake, China will want to be on show in Athens, so this squad will be doing its utmost to impress so they can be part of the fun and games in August.
As for the Matildas, they have five new caps in an 18-strong squad boasting some 319 caps in total. Captain Joanne Peters and vice-captain Dianne Alagich have both played in the now-defunct WUSA competition, and their experience will be vital to an Australian combination which sees the welcome return of the multi-talented Amy Taylor - most people may remember her as the cover-girl of the Matildas (in)famous calendar which graced the turn of the century!!
New Zealand boasts just 62 caps between them, with vice-captain Maia Jackman boasting over a quarter of that tally herself. But what they may lack in experience they will endeavor to make up for in spirit, with captain Rebecca Smith, her aforementioned central defensive partner and never-say-die midfield dynamo Simone Ferrara certain to be three of this country's key on-field leaders as the road to China 2007 begins for New Zealand s soccer. Given the order of play for the New Zealand squad, this writer is quietly confident that the "unknown quantity" factor could prove significant against Australia in their opening match.
Rare indeed are the occasions in recent years when the Matildas have gone into trans-tasman derbies knowing full well the strengths and weaknesses of their next-door neighbours. Wednesday evening's clash in Brisbane sees the host nation taking on their rivals without knowing fully what to expect. It is ten years since New Zealand last overcame Australia in women' soccer, and while the prospect of that record being broken in 2004 remains unlikely, it is a hurdle which this country's womens representatives are keen to put to rights sooner rather than later, make no mistake!
Saturday's encounter against China - at 2pm in the afternoon in temperatures expected to be in the vicinity of 32°C - will be as great a challenge physically for the players as it will be football-wise.
A return to a more suitable kick-off time - 5pm on Tuesday evening - sees New Zealand playing its one hundredth international on the women's soccer stage. Against the team this writer tips to win the Australia Cup, the reigning Asian champions North Korea, providing the opposition for this momentous occasion in the history of the game in this country.
It is somehow ironic that this is the case, given that it was New Zealand who following their first international tournament in 1975, returned home as the inaugural winners of the Asian Cup, the trophy which North Korea holds today.
To restrict their opponents to wins by a couple of goals at most will, for this writer, mark huge achievements for what is a very raw New Zealand team taking on opposition which regularly plays against, and ranks among, the world's best. Securing a draw, or an against-all-odds win, against any one of their opponents, would be, quite simply, a massive fillip for a young side which is embarking on a course which, all being well, will see them performing on the biggest stages of all in women's soccer - the 2007 World Cup Finals and the 2008 Olympic Games.