OPINION: New Zealand men's football - and the code in Canterbury - could learn a lot from the women's game.
Women's football is on a roll. If the Halberg Awards judges created a prize for the most improved team in New Zealand, the Football Ferns would win in a landslide.
Tony Readings' team - ranked 19th in the world - won their first international tournament outside Oceania in 38 years when they beat Brazil (ranked fourth) and China (16th) to win the Valais Cup, in Switzerland, in September.
Earlier in 2013 they beat Scotland (20th), Italy (12th) and Switzerland (25th) and they also had 1-1 draws with Japan, the third-ranked team in the world and current World Cup champions, and the No 1 team, the United States.
Only the US, England (11th) and Australia (8th) beat the Ferns but the Kiwis did bounce back with a 1-1 draw with their trans-Tasman rivals.
The Football Ferns played 11 games in 2013 for five wins, three draws and three defeats. They scored 15 goals and conceded 12. That record must constitute their best season yet, given the calibre of their opposition.
It's just reward for the systems put in place, firstly by former Ferns coach John Herdman and latterly by Readings.
The New Zealand women's programme is carefully co-ordinated with national age-group teams singing from the same sheet as the Ferns. It's a seamless transition from the Young Football Ferns (under-17s) through to the Junior Football Ferns (under-20s) and on to the senior national team.
The New Zealand men's programme, by contrast, never seemed to have the same synchronicity between the age-group teams, the New Zealand Olympic (under-23) squad and the All Whites.
That may improve, especially if All Whites assistant-coach Neil Emblen, head coach of the New Zealand Olympic team, gets the national coaching job after Ricki Herbert's retirement.
The All Whites desperately need to rebuild after a torturous time in 2013, culminating in a 9-3 World Cup playoff series defeat to Mexico. But they are definitely lagging behind the Football Ferns right at this moment.
Auckland was so long the epicentre of the women's game in New Zealand. "Go north, young woman" was the catchcry for any young player aspiring to make national teams.
But Canterbury can now claim to be the hotbed.
Coastal Spirit won the National Knockout Cup crown in September - the first Canterbury team to do so for 19 years - and the Mainland Pride toppled two-time champions Northern to win the National Women's League title for the first time last Sunday.
Contrast the Mainland Pride team sheet with Canterbury United's in the men's National League.
The Pride had just one import - Football Ferns midfielder Annalie Longo, who moved to Christchurch from Auckland to start a coaching business.
Canterbury United fielded just four New Zealand-born players in their 11-man starting lineup for last weekend's 2-0 win over Team Wellington, including three of their best players, All White Aaron Clapham, goalkeeper Adam Highfield and striker Russell Kamo.
Don't get me wrong, the Canterbury "imports" [from England, Scotland, Uruguay and Chile] are good enough to play at this level. But why aren't young Canterbury players progressing through to the Dragons' national league ranks?
The blame can't be sheeted at the Canterbury United coaches. By common consensus, Keith Braithwaite and Sean Devine have picked most of the best players in their catchment.
The men's National League isn't a development competition - the top two teams qualify for the Oceania Champions League and potential Club World Cup finals representation. Canterbury owe it to Clapham, Kamo and Highfield to put the best possible players around them.
But it would be nice to see more young Canterbury players hungry to play at that level.
The Mainland Pride have a co-ordinated coaching programme whereby players are plucked from their club environment to train with the provincial team.
Mainland Football are keen to develop something similar for male youth players and it is to be hoped that the clubs and players embrace it.
Young male footballers could learn a lot from their female counterparts in terms of dedication and enthusiasm.
Apart from Longo (who's only 22) and striker Aimee Phillips (23), the Pride's best players - goalkeeper and captain Lily Alfeld, defenders Lauren Merrin and Meikayla Moore, midfielder Lauren Dabner and striker Belinda van Noorden are teenagers who bring a youthful exuberance to their game.
It's made the Pride a joy to watch.
- © Fairfax NZ News