Ferns look to spoil Great Britain's party early
FRED WOODCOCK IN LONDON
Football Ferns captain Rebecca Smith sees no point in denying it - tomorrow's Olympic Games opener against Britain at the Millennium Stadium is as big as it gets.
But in the same breath the veteran central defender says there is a calmness about the Ferns and a feeling that they are not the team with everything to lose.
And on that count she is probably right again.
"If you analyse it, it is really a massive game, not only the opening match against the host nation, but the first of the whole Olympics. You can't deny it's massive, but we know most of the pressure is on them, especially as the host nation. We have nothing to lose," she said after a training run in Cardiff.
The national women's football team has been building for these Olympics for five years, when former coach John Herdman and his staff, including current coach Tony Readings, who was the team's analyst at the 2007 World Cup in China, developed a five-year plan for success in London.
They have slowly implemented that plan and the results have followed. New Zealand is a credible side on the world stage now and, crucially, most of the squad are now plying their trade professionally or semi-professionally around the world, rather than for amateur club teams in the Auckland local league.
Not succeeding at the Olympics won't render all that work meaningless, but it will be a bitter pill to swallow. In the 12-team competition, they will want to at least make the quarterfinals, but the Ferns have even greater ambitions. "We're finally ready to get out and show what we've been working on for the last five years and how much we've developed," Smith said.
To qualify for the last eight, they will need to finish in the top two in their pool, or be one of the two best third-placed teams from the three groups.
It's not an onerous task, but they will need to be at their peak.
A win, as expected, against Cameroon in their final group match next Wednesday might be enough, but they would prefer it didn't come down to that, so points against the hosts in Cardiff tomorrow morning (3am NZ time) are vital, preferably all three of them. No-one expects them to get a result from their second match, against Brazil on Sunday.
The Ferns are capable of an upset against the Britons, essentially the England team they faced at last year's World Cup.
England won that match 2-1, but New Zealand led until the hour mark and in the past year they have improved markedly. Of course, the Britons will have as well, with the result likely to hinge on which team makes the most of its chances.
A bumper crowd of up to 50,000 is expected and New Zealand will be hoping to play the ultimate party-pooper role. All the pressure will be on the hosts to kick the Games off in cracking fashion, something British coach Hope Powell has admitted to.
"They have the pick of all the home nations, but we have improved quite a bit, and we play every game to win now, no matter who the opposition is," Smith said.
- Fairfax Media