As most teams around the world turned their attention toward impending qualifying efforts, New Zealand was trying to figure out if it could even field a team in pursuit of a fourth consecutive trip to the World Cup. Less than a year after he was hired, coach and technical director, Andreas Heraf was suspended this past June after more than a dozen players filed complaints about his conduct. He resigned about a month later, and a review subsequently found he harassed and bullied players. That finding that led to an apology from the sport's national governing body.
Out of all of that, a period of time veteran defender Ali Riley recently described as "hell," a generation that put the Football Ferns on the map when they qualified for the 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cups will try and move forward. The objective under new coach Tom Sermanni, a World Cup veteran who took over shortly before qualifying last fall, is improving on a pair of draws in 2015 and earning the nation's first win in either the men's or women's editions of the World Cup.
How they got here
On the field, at least, the path to France was as straightforward as ever for a team that has dominated Oceania since Australia shifted to the Asian confederation. New Zealand routed the Cook Islands, Fiji and Tonga by a combined 27-0 margin in group play in the OFC Women's Nations Cup, then beat New Caledonia and Fiji by matching 8-0 margins in the semifinal and final, respectively, to clinch the region's lone World Cup berth. In that regard, few teams had it easier.
As might be expected of a country making its fourth consecutive World Cup appearance, experience is an asset. Seven players have earned more than 100 caps for New Zealand, with most likely to be in the starting lineup in France. As they showed most recently in an April win against Norway, the Football Ferns know how to play a measured, counterattacking style that puts numbers behind the ball but has speed and skill on the flanks from the likes of two-way threats Ali Riley, Ria Percival and Katie Bowen to transition quickly to attack.
New Zealand plays Goliath in Oceania and David on the world stage, and the current core group of players has made that unique tactical identity their own over the past decade-plus.
Money stat: 7
Seven goals. That's the total return New Zealand has for 12 previous World Cup games. The numbers aren't much better if you add six goals in 10 Olympic games. For all its organization, toughness and experience, New Zealand hasn't had the firepower to turn those traits into wins in big events. Among the teams that scored more goals in the 2015 World Cup were Costa Rica, Ivory Coast and Thailand.
Players to watch
Abby Erceg: Familiar to American fans as one of the NWSL's stalwart defenders, currently with defending champion North Carolina, Erceg has traveled quite the road. She debuted at 16 and is in her fourth World Cup at 29 years old, but only after she stepped away from international play twice -- last May because of the toxic atmosphere under Heraf but also in 2017 to draw attention to the general lack of support for the women's team from the national federation.
Hannah Wilkinson: Back when Wilkinson was starring at the University of Tennessee and scoring late goals like the one that earned New Zealand a shocking draw against the United States on American soil in 2013, it looked as if the Football Ferns had a goal scorer to build around for years to come. But two major knee injuries in four years, the most recent a year ago, slowed her ascent. Her limited minutes this spring suggest she isn't yet ready for 90 minutes a game, but she's on the World Cup roster and could be an X factor for a goal-starved side.
As with Cameroon, New Zealand will try to pick off a point against Canada or the Netherlands. New Zealand did just that against host Canada in 2015 and came within a goal of doing so against the Netherlands in the same group. But in all likelihood, just as it did four years ago when it tied China in the finale and finished fourth in the group, it will all come down to the finale in Montpellier on June 20 against Cameroon.
"Some of the things that we've had to do at the beginning of this year should have all been done at a similar time last year. So by the time we got together this year, we should have been in a much more solid place of knowing what we're doing. We were still in that stage where we were trying to find players, find out the team, put stuff together.
"For me, it was not so much the dynamic of the team, because the team is very much united. It is more the amount of time you lose. The real key part [of World Cup preparation] is the year before because that's when you do all the groundwork. The last three months leading into the World Cup is the refinement stage. We missed all the groundwork, so our groundwork started in February, March this year." --Tom Sermanni
"I think being a little bit more realistic is actually refreshing for us. Going in as an underdog, hoping for some Cinderella story, telling yourself we're going to win the World Cup -- that's pretty much what we did the last three times. And I don't think we necessarily prepared in the best way because we kind of were hoping for a miracle. This time around, especially after what we experienced with our last coach in the past 12 months, I think [it helps] to have someone like Tom come in and know exactly what it's going to take, to be realistic with what our strengths are and what are weaknesses are -- but who has also given us a belief that we can win a game and from there anything can happen. ...
"Maybe four years ago I would have been embarrassed to say our goal is to win a game." -- Ali Riley
All of that experience, positive and negative, leaves New Zealand mentally tough enough to pull out a win against Cameroon and potentially squeak into the knockout round.