January 31, 2004
New Zealand sidesteps Olympics in quest for greater glory
by Jeremy Ruane
New Zealandıs soccer stars are experiencing mixed emotions at receiving news from New Zealand Soccer that they will not be taking part in the Oceania Olympic Qualifying Tournament in March.
While there is a great deal of disappointment among the players at this news, as it marks the curtailing of their dreams of competing in Athens in August, it has been tempered by the juicy carrot being dangled in front of them by the national body. It is part of a long-term plan for worthwhile competition as a good return for NZ Soccer's limited resources.
New Zealand Soccer is committed to making a full-scale assault on qualifying for the 2007 World Cup Finals in China, and realise that they need to provide the female footballing fraternity with the necessary experience to conquer their nemesis Australia, and prove competitive at the finals. This entails a diet of regular matches against quality international opposition, with an emphasis on a better return for the dollars invested in any tournament or international matches played. A number of fixtures are planned in the months and years to come, many of which are still being negotiated.
Three fixtures have been confirmed for February, with the New Zealand National Team, formerly referred to by the media-friendly SWANZ tag, taking part in the sixth Australia Cup tournament, playing matches against China, North Korea and the host nation on the Sunshine Coast. The tournament, which is likely to take place at the Martins Creek Complex in Maroochydore between February 18-24, sees the Kiwi combination taking on three teams which contested last year's Women's World Cup Finals in the USA.
While North Korea and Australia were ousted in the first round, China went on to make the quarter-finals, and they will be using this tournament as part of their preparations for the annual Algarve Cup tournament in Portugal in March.
It will be a tall order for the Fred Simpson-coached squad, but there are highlights nonetheless. New Zealand's third match in the round-robin tournament will mark this country's one hundredth full women's soccer international, while the clash against Australia will be one which they will be targeting for special reasons.
"The reason why NZS has opted not to enter the Women's Olympic competition is not because there are no funds available, nor is it because they favour one gender over the other." says Chief Executive Officer, Bill MacGowan. "Right now, we are ranked second in Oceania in women's soccer, but hand on heart, it is extremely difficult at best to see how as generally inexperienced a squad as is currently available could overcome the Matildas in order to qualify for Athens. ³Therefore, rather than outlay money to bring players in from America and Australia to New Zealand before heading to Fiji for the qualifying tournament, and what we see as being a second-placed finish at best, NZS would prefer to spend the money we have budgeted for women's soccer to provide the players with a diet of regular, top quality international football, against opposition which will be a challenge to them and will prove better for their footballing development both in the short- and long-term."
One wonders how New Zealand Soccer would react were their charges to turn the tables on Australia for the first time since 1994 and upset the odds in Maroochydore. A late entry for the qualifiers? The women, and no doubt Oceania, would like to think so.
The Confederation have copped a double-whammy from New Zealand Soccer when it comes to the women's game in 2004. Not only will this country not be represented at the Women's Olympic qualifying tournament in Fiji, they will be notable absentees from the Under-19 Women's World Cup qualifying tournament, scheduled for Papua New Guinea in April.
It means short-term pain for the players, while Australia will no doubt be delighted with this news. Such is the strength (weakness?) of the women's game in the rest of the Oceania Confederation, that it virtually assures our trans-tasman rival places at both the Olympic Games in Athens in August, and the Under-19 Women's World Cup Finals in Thailand in November.
But the national body's strategies definitely have long-term gain as their ultimate objective, as New Zealand Director of Football, Paul Smalley, explains. "New Zealand Soccer has put in place the infrastructure necessary to progress our plans, the ultimate goal of which is to achieve international success for all our national teams."he said. "To that end, the International Player Development Programme, the pathway for players and the Coach Education Programme we have put in place have to be very closely linked. How can you develop players to compete and perform against the world's best, when they haven't got the quality of coach and programmes in place to do so? How can you expect coaches to practice good practice unless you have good players and programmes to work with? is the argument. To resolve this, we would rather use the time available to plan and develop a group of players for that purpose, thus will only enter competitions when they are ready to do so." Smalley declared.
FIFA's regulations require member associations to enter a minimum of three competitions in their tournament cycles, so in 2004, the OlyWhites (New Zealand Under-23s) qualifying campaign in January, and the combined Oceania Nations Cup / World Cup qualifying tournament in June for the All Whites, will satisfy that criteria from New Zealand Soccer's viewpoint.
"The objective in 2004 is to work very hard to identify and recruit the best players, male and female, in a range of year groups, U-12 to U-17 inclusive, then U-19, U-21, U-23 and Senior, Smalley continues. This will be an ongoing process, and will identify players who haven't been seen.To this end, New Zealand Soccer is scouring the USA and Australia for Kiwi players to assess their qualities, and bring them into this system, which will have a profile database for each player. In the near future, the national body will be announcing the appointment of a new National Women's Development Officer, to co-ordinate this programme from the women's side of the agenda. This person will replace a void following the return to her teaching roots of the initial appointment, Michelle Anderson, early in 2003."
"In terms of on-field activity this year,"says Smalley, "supplementary to the internationals being negotiated for the senior side are a series of internationals for Under-14, 15 and 16 girls and boys representative teams. These follow on from the experiences afforded Under-16 girls and boys squads which played games in Australia in October, one of a number of initiatives introduced by NZS for the game's female players to aspire to.. Others include academies at senior and age-grade levels, to allow the national body to have regular contact with the players, and monitor their development, and the National Women's League, the showcase round-robin representative competition for the women's game which takes place in the latter months of the year, adequately replacing its predecessor, the week-long National Tournament."
"As well," continued the Director of Football, "there are three regional training academies for our senior female players - one of which has already taken place, and we are developing associations with a number of confederations and nations, with friendly internationals possible, pending the outcomes of various negotiations. There is a possibility that women's soccer will be accepted for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. New Zealand, currently ranked 21st in the women's game by FIFA, are fourth in the commonwealth (behind Canada, England and Australia), based on the same rankings."
However, while that possibility is unconfirmed, and very much still at discussion level behind the scenes, qualifying for the 2007 Womenıs World Cup Finals in China is a far more definite target for New Zealand's womenıs soccer players, as Mr Smalley emphasises.
"The focus will be heavily on the senior women in 2006 (Women's World Cup qualifying), 2007 (Olympic qualifying, Women's World Cup Finals) and 2008 (the Olympics in Beijing). And for the Under-19s, qualifying for the 2006 Women's World Cup Finals in that age group will be a key target that year also.. The task of coaching the national women's team will be a short-term appointment," says Smalley, "based on when games take place."
"It will be very closely linked with the Elite Player, Elite Coach Programme, an offshoot of the Coach Education Programme, where encouraging former internationals to be involved in the game in a coaching capacity is something NZS is keen to develop. Former international Lesley Letcher attended the most recent course," recalled Mr Smalley, "while Ali Grant and Wendi Henderson have expressed interest in being involved in this way."
New Zealand Soccer is keen to involve other female players of similar experience and standing in the game, such as former women's professionals Maureen Jacobson and Michele Cox, and, when she eventually hangs up her boots, Terry McCahill, in this programme.
A female coach guiding the SWANZ when they take to the field on the international stage in the not-too-distant future? Tha tis clearly an objective for New Zealand Soccer. To that end, Ali Grant will assist coach Fred Simpson at the upcoming Australia Cup tournament.
For the likes of Maia Jackman, Nicky Smith, Simone Ferrara and team captain, Rebecca Smith, the chance to proudly wear the silver fern happens far too infrequently for comfort's sake. A fact borne out by New Zealandıs National Team having played just nine full internationals between November 1998 and December 2003.
It should be noted that these figures do not include the five matches played in Texas against U.S. College teams, which played an integral part in the teamıs preparations for the 2003 Women's World Cup qualifying tournament in Canberra last April.
In that same time frame, the All Whites have played forty-three internationals, while the Matildas (Australia team) have taken the world stage sixty-two times, including at prestigious tournaments such as the 2000 Olympics and both the 1999 and 2003 Womenıs World Cup Finals.
That last statistic alone bears out New Zealand Soccer's argument re not entering the 2004 Olympic qualifying tournament. Australia regularly take on the world's best, and have reached a ranking of sixteenth in the world through doing so.
Now, our women's soccer stars are being given the opportunities by NZS to make in-roads into their rival's standing, and usurp Australia as Oceania's premier women's soccer-playing nation, by way of regular international match-play aimed to have them primed and dangerous come qualifying time for China 2007.
It would be somehow fitting to see the cream of the next generation of New Zealand's women's soccer stars attempting to emulate the feats of their forerunners at those finals in three years time. New Zealand Soccer intend to give them every chance to do so.