New Zealand are the cockroaches of women’s international soccer—they’re always around. By virtue of playing in limp-ass Oceania and therefore having the luxury to qualify for the biggest tournaments simply by beating up on the even tinier nations around them, New Zealand essentially get free admission to the World Cup every four years. And if they’re lucky and don’t blow it against Cameroon, they might actually win a game this time around.
If nothing else, especially for a country with such a small population, you have to give the Football Ferns credit for their consistency. Since the FIFA World Rankings were introduced in 2003, New Zealand have never dropped lower than 24th in the world. The problem, though, is that they’ve also never been higher than 16th, which is how they’ve found themselves the architects of some of the most forgettable tournament appearances in history. New Zealand have had one win at each of the last two Olympics, scoring 4 goals over a total of seven games. At the Women’s World Cup, they’re winless in four showings, with seven goals in 12 games. In 2015, they got their most points ever simply by drawing twice and scoring twice.
In 2018, however, there was a rebellion against New Zealand’s dreary status quo. Andreas Heraf, manager from 2017 to 2018, fucked up just about as badly as someone could in that short a time on the job. While Heraf’s players scored a huge victory off the pitch by securing equal pay and accommodations as the men’s team in May 2018, on the pitch they were forced into a boring, conservative style that failed to produce results. Heraf’s tenure hit the nadir following a 3-1 loss to Japan at home in June that prompted frustration about his tactics, and then sunk even lower a few weeks later when at least 10 players formally complained about him for reportedly creating a culture of bullying, intimidation, and fear around the team. By the end of July, he was gone.
Tom Sermanni, former manager of the USWNT for an uneventful 18 months from 2012 to 2014, has been tasked with boosting morale and doing damage control. He’s picked an experienced squad to try to keep things steady, with eight players who have earned at least 90 caps. Unsurprisingly, Sermanni inherits a team with a solid-enough defense, but also a group that’s going to rely heavily on traditional underdog counterattacking if they’re going to finally nab a victory. New Zealand are a threat to frustrate their more talented group stage opponents, the Netherlands and Canada, but if they’re going to sneak out of the group, it’ll almost assuredly be as a one-win third-place team.
Goalkeepers: Erin Nayler (Bordeaux), Victoria Esson (Avaldsnes), Nadia Olla (Western Springs)
Defenders: Ria Percival (West Ham), Anna Green (Miramar Rangers), CJ Bott (Vittsjö), Nicole Stratford (Unattached), Rebekah Stott (Avaldsnes), Ali Riley (Chelsea), Abby Erceg (North Carolina Courage), Sarah Morton (Western Springs), Stephanie Skilton (Papakura City), Olivia Chance (Unattached)
Midfielders: Annalie Longo (Unattached), Betsy Hassett (KR Reykjavík), Katie Bowen (Utah Royals), Katie Duncan (Onehunga Sports), Daisy Cleverley (California Golden Bears)
Forwards: Emma Kete (Unattached), Sarah Gregorius (Miramar Rangers), Rosie White (Unattached), Hannah Wilkinson (Unattached), Paige Satchell (SC Sand)
Unsurprisingly, it’s not any of the forwards. Goalkeeper Erin Nayler, who plays for Bordeaux, is one player to watch. She returns to the game’s biggest stage after a strong showing in 2015. Nayler would be the breakout hero on the team if New Zealand got to the knockout round, since doing so would pretty much require a Herculean effort from her in keeping clean sheets.
But perhaps the most crucial component of New Zealand’s potential success is its defensive leader, Abby Erceg. Erceg is a former captain who’s quit the team on multiple occasions—including after that ugly Japan game—but the 29-year-old is back to play in what’ll already be her fourth World Cup. She was the 2018 NWSL Defender of the Year, and her team, the championship-winning North Carolina Courage, allowed the fewest goals of any team last season.
New Zealand’s scorelines in Oceania are dramatically lopsided, but at the highest levels of international soccer, this team steals its points through defense and goal-poaching. It’s hard to say anything definitive about their World Cup chances based on their 2019 matches, which include wins against England and Norway but also losses to South Korea and Wales. As an experienced squad that’s weathered adversity, they’re certainly a threat to hold the bigger teams to 0-0 draws. But if they give up even just two goals in a game, they’re basically done for.
June 11, 9 a.m.: New Zealand vs. Netherlands at Stade Océane
June 15, 3 p.m.: Canada vs. New Zealand at Stade des Alpes
June 20, noon: Cameroon vs. New Zealand at Stade de la Mosson
All times Eastern