Marta missing, but Brazil bring bags of stars
The football World Cup is hotting up in their homeland, but the Brazilian national women's team is coming to New Zealand - minus its biggest star.
Five-time women's world player of the year, Marta, will miss Brazil's two matches against the Football Ferns due to competing commitments as a Fifa World Cup official ambassador.
Football Ferns coach Tony Readings said it was a shame the highest-profile women's footballer in the world would not get to showcase her talents in New Zealand, but Marta was "the only one missing" from Brazil's top team.
"It would have been great to play against her here. We played against her at the Olympics and shackled her there. She's always dangerous and brings a lot of threats, but they've still got Debinha and Rosana, who are world class players too and they will bring some different threats."
Brazil - ranked sixth in the world - will be keen to avenge their 2013 Valais Cup tournament defeat in Switzerland against the 20th-ranked Football Ferns when the two countries clash in Auckland on Monday and in Taupo on Thursday. New Zealand won the Swiss tournament encounter 1-0 with a goal by veteran striker Amber Hearn and went on to win the Valais Cup, their first tournament success outside Oceania for 38 years. The Ferns have not played at home since 2012 - "27 games ago" - and Readings said they were keen to test themselves against one of the strongest squads in world football before the 2015 World Cup finals and the 2016 Olympic Games.
"The better the opposition we can play against, the more it will expose some things that we can't do and some things we are good at. The more learning we can get between now and those big pinnacle events, the better."
It's also a rare opportunity for many of the Football Ferns' overseas-based professionals to play at home.
Readings, who has watched footage of Brazil's recent game against France, said left back Anna Green was still injured and England-based Hayley Bowden was not yet ready to return, but the Ferns will still field an experienced lineup.
"We've got two players in the squad who are playing in England, three in Germany, two in the Swedish league and [captain] Abby Erceg is playing in the United States."
Betsy Hassett (Manchester City) and Katie Hoyle (Notts County) feature in England's top tier competition, Ria Percival, Abby Hearn and Rebekah Stott are in Germany, Ali Riley and Kirsty Yallop play in the strong Swedish premier league, Erceg is at the Chicago Red Stars and young strikers Rosie White and Hannah Wilkinson are on football scholarships at American universities.
Readings said having so many players based overseas "makes it difficult", logistically, to assemble a squad. "But it's good for us, in the long term."
The Football Ferns have an experienced squad with defender Erceg, 24, already boasting 97 caps, Percival and Hoyle 87, Hearn 83, Yallop 79, Riley 77, Hassett 63 and midfielder Annalie Longo, 62. White and Wilkinson, who are aged 21 and 22 respectively, both already have 56 senior caps.
New Zealand last played a home series in June, 2012 when they beat China 3-1 and 1-0 in Auckland.