Around the World in Women's Soccer: New Zealand's Football Ferns
Around the World in Women's Soccer is a series that explores women's soccer in other countries. NOTE: Usually, each country would be covered in two stories, looking at the national team first and then the domestic league. However, because New Zealand is only beginning to develop club football for women, we will explore both topics in this article.
If you watch international women's soccer, you're probably familiar with the Football Ferns. Since 2007, they have qualified for every Women's World Cup, although they have never made it out of the group stage. They have been in each Olympic games since 2008, making it to the quarterfinals in the 2012 games. If you're an NWSL fan, you'll recognize some familiar faces on their roster, including North Carolina Courage defender Abby Erceg and Orlando Pride defender Ali Riley.
But New Zealand's situation is a little bit of smoke and mirrors. They consistently qualify for international competition because they are in the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), which only has 13 teams. The confederation used to include Australia, but the Matildas left in 2005 to join the Asian Football Confedreation (AFC). New Zealand is ranked No. 22 in the FIFA World Rankings, making them the third-lowest ranked team in this month's Tokyo Olympics, ahead of only No. 37 Chile and No. 104 Zambia. But the next team closest to them in their own federation is Papua New Guinea at No. 50. With that sort of gap, it's not hard to see why they've won the last six OFC Women's Nations Cups and consistently qualify for Oceania's spot in international competition.
New Zealand's record once it qualifies for those international competitions is rough. In their 15 Women's World Cup matches, they've never won a game. Their record is a bit better at the Olympics, where they've won one match in each of the last two competitions. While they dominate their confederation competition, they've never been a real threat amongst the top teams in the world.
Part of that struggle comes because, like many countries, New Zealand has been inconsistent in its investment in women's soccer. While New Zealand is one of the few soccer federations that provides equal pay to the men's and women's teams, it is just now branching out into a professional club-based soccer league domestically. With the exception of players who are part of the Future Ferns Domestic Programme, all of New Zealand's players are with clubs overseas. This means that they rarely get the chance to play together.
But the changes to the domestic league, which begins competition later this year, are a good sign. New Zealand will also be co-hosts for the 2023 Women's World Cup, which provides tons of opportunities for exposure and growth. New Zealand has always been a decent team, but these big steps might help it reach that next tier and really compete with the best teams in the world.
The Tokyo Olympics, which kick off on July 21st, will likely be a tough competition for New Zealand. They're in Group G, alongside Sweden, the United States, and Australia. Their best hope will be to rely on their strong defense and hope to squeeze out a result. If they can get a good result against Sweden or Australia, they might be able to make it to the quarterfinals for the first time since the 2012 games.
The Olympic tournament will also be the last for head coach Tom Sermanni, which means the New Zealand Federation will be on a quest for a new person to lead the team into the 2023 Women's World Cup. Like many teams, change is on the horizon for New Zealand. And the future looks hopeful.
If you want to follow along with the Football Ferns on social media, you can find the federation on Twitter. You can also follow team captain Ali Riley on Twitter and Instagram, as well as Abby Erceg, Katie Bowen, and many other players. You can find the team's full Olympic roster here.