Football Ferns push Brazil in 1-0 loss
There was a sombre mood in the Football Ferns' dressing room as they had to digest a crushing late goal from Brazil, which has consigned the Kiwis to a second loss at the Olympics and put their participation in the quarter-finals in serious jeopardy.
New Zealand were on the verge of a history-making draw with the crack Brazilians here at a sun-drenched Millennium Stadium - no New Zealand senior team has ever taken points off Brazil - but they were dealt a knockout punch in the dying minutes and could not get up off the canvas.
Cristiane's looping 86th minute shot could not be kept out of the net despite a desperate attempt by defender Abby Erceg, the world's fifth-ranked team escaping with a 1-0 victory.
Goalkeeper Jenny Bindon, who'd had a good match till that moment, came out to punch a free kick, couldn't get there, and the ball ended up at Cristiane's foot, the powerful striker perfectly weighting her lob so that it was unstoppable.
"I haven't seen the replay but the ball did seem to go too easily in the net," Ferns coach Tony Readings lamented, cutting a dejected figure in the bowels of Millennium Stadium.
"It looked like it had been cleared on the first header and when the ball goes in that softly, there's got to be something you haven't done well enough.
"It wasn't that good a ball into the box and we should be dealing with those quite easily. We had done so for the previous 85 minutes."
Brazil's victory booked them a spot in the quarterfinals but New Zealand's hopes hang by a thread.
They're now 0 for 2, following a 1-0 loss to Britain in their opening match, and they must beat Cameroon in their final pool match in Coventry on Wednesday (NZT), preferrably by a handsome margin, and hope other results go their way.
That would see them qualify as one of the two best third-placed sides from the 12-team competition.
On paper, they should beat Cameroon, who were beaten 5-0 by Brazil first-up and today suffered a 3-0 reverse against Britain, and today's performance will have given them confidence if not points after a disappointing showing against the hosts.
"Brazil are a world class team and to take them that close to a draw does show an improvement in the performance, but again it's hard to have too many positives because we got nothing out of it,'' Readings said.
New Zealand didn't create many opportunities, but they didn't concede many clear-cut ones either as Marta and Cristiane were kept relatively quiet up front.
Brazil looked keen to almost walk the ball into the goal, as they often successfully do, but New Zealand defended stoutly and the favourites were reduced shooting from outside the box.
Ferns captain Rebecca Smith issued a statement of intent in the first minute when she showed Marta little respect with an uncompromising challenge.
The five-time world player of the year rolled around, supposedly in agony, and there were some hushed tones from the Brazilian fans, but she took all of two seconds to start running once she eventually got off the ground.
Experienced fullbacks Ria Percival and Ali Riley got up and down the flanks well with some last-ditch defending and useful attacking forays. Percival had an exceptional match, often defending Marta who tended to drift left.
Betsy Hassett, in central midfield for Kirsty Yallop in the only change from the team that lost 1-0 to Britain on Wednesday, had a high workrate , as did all of the Ferns, from the two strikers back.
Readings' homework was thorough and the defensive system he employed worked a treat. But, again, it counted for little in the aftermath.
"Marta, I don't remember her causing us any real problems over the entire match, and I don't think I've seen that before against any opposition,'' he said.
"But you have a game plan, you execute it, it works, and you still don't get a result - that's difficult.''
As the match wore on the crowd, mainly made up for Brits awaiting the later kickoff between Britain and Cameroon, rallied behind the underdogs.
There was an almighty cry of 'boo' when Wilkinson was booked with 15 minutes remaining and rousing applause when workaholic midfielder Hayley Moorwood was substituted moments later.
The pockets of New Zealanders who were wandering Cardiff's central city streets pre-match on another beautiful Welsh day started to make themselves heard, too, hopeful they were going to witness a slice of football history.
And they almost did. But almost is becoming a popular word in New Zealand football.