World Cup not second nature for Young Ferns
NICOLA ABERCROMBIE IN BAKU
The 'Young Football Ferns' banner and messages of support plastered over the hallway walls adds a touch of home to an otherwise foreign environment for the New Zealand under-17 women's football team.
The 2012 World Cup is being held in Baku, the capital of the Caucasus region's largest country of Azerbaijan. It is around a 30-hour journey from Auckland, New Zealand.
But it's not only the country and culture that are foreign. The young side has an entire floor of a five-star hotel to themselves. They have a fridge full of drinks that is constantly re-stocked, brand new playing and training gear is stacked up and they have a police escort to all practice sessions and games.
It takes a few squeals to remember this is all for girls who still haven't finished high school.
The Young Football Ferns are enjoying the spoils that come with attending a FIFA World Cup. But the luxuries they are exposed to also highlight how far New Zealand football has to come.
All FIFA competitions are organised in exactly the same way, from under-17 girls to the men's World Cup.
While each team has equal opportunity and access to facilities in Baku, for some countries more than others, the environment is second nature.
The likes of Japan, the United States and Germany are exposed to international football from a young age. For the Kiwis, this is the first time many have competed so far from home.
"It's pretty different for the girls," said the Young Football Ferns coach Paul Temple, who is at his fourth women's World Cup.
"They treat you very well, you get to stay in nice hotels, you get nice food and well looked after so it is good, but for the girls it's quite a new experience because New Zealand football isn't rich.
"When we go away we don't stay in surrounds like this."
While the luxuries are nice, the nerves were apparent in their first game against Mexico.
"It is quite a surreal environment," said Temple. "I guess there's a flow over onto the pitch in terms of dealing with the World Cup scenario as a whole.
"All of a sudden there's quite a lot of competition for places, everyone wants to play, everyone's been working 20 months for their chance to shine and their opportunity.
"All of a sudden the pressure ramps up hugely."
To qualify for this World Cup, New Zealand had to beat Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia and the Cook Islands.
They scored 29 goals and conceded just one.
Japan, who beat the Young Ferns 3-0 in their second group match, had to play North Korea and China. The United States had Canada and Mexico in their region and in the South American confederation, Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia all battled it out.
"These girls have got pressure, they've got games and they've got quality competition and we don't," said Temple.
"We've had a good build-up in terms of our performances but it's a totally different scenario when it comes to World Cups.
"You can play lots of international friendlies but the friendlies are different to a tournament. Having that competition element where you're fighting for something and there's pressure is obviously an aid to those teams.
"It's not a coincidence that Germany and Japan and these teams are the best in the world, it's because they constantly play against good sides."
More international exposure requires more money, said Temple, "but there's what you'd like and then there's the reality".
National Talent Centres (NTCs) operate from the under-17 level, but there are only two camps a year for four days at a time. If New Zealand wants to compete with the likes of Japan, said Temple, young players need more exposure to elite level football.
"We shouldn't really be coming to these tournaments expecting we're going to win because what we're up against is huge and I think it's very difficult for the general public to see that.
"We should be aiming to keep improving the amount of international exposure we give the teams. I think potentially starting younger as well and exposing them to those environments a little sooner."
Temple said the Whole of Football plan, which aims to grow the sport in New Zealand through youth development is a good start, but it needs to extend beyond grassroots level.
"At some stage we need to think heavily about what we want to try and get out of our international teams and what plans suit around that.
"We have an NTC programme and that has definitely helped. I believe this group is probably the strongest group we've taken away technically because this is the first group of our NTC programme.
"We've got some good ingredients and the players have got that ingrained Kiwi spirit where they never give up and those are things that you can't buy or you can't develop with money.
"You have those good ingredients but at some stage you need to have a programme where you can allow that to flourish."
Mayrilian Cruz Blanco, FIFA's women's football development manager, said Japan was the perfect example of where the youth programmes were excelling.
"Japan have done a really good job in the last 10 years at the youth level and this is key to their success.
"Their assistant coach told me actually the under-17s are better than the under-20s and the under-20s played against the senior team and they won."
She said Japan had girls in elite programmes from the age of six, developing skills and techniques so they were ahead of the pack when they reached the under-17 level.
While Temple said New Zealand was on the right track, it was unrealistic to expect consistently good performances without the solid foundation other football rich nations have.
"For the last probably four years we have really punched above our weight. But if it's expected that you take the next step without the investment to back it up then it's unrealistic.
"If we want to take the next step and start talking about consistently qualifying for quarter-finals, semi-finals, then you can't just make that jump because people expect it.
"There needs to be some foundation in order to allow you to do that, you need a significant amount of time and investment in that."
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