Football Ferns' Tokyo Olympics hopes rest on them finally getting a win over Australia
Ria Percival has played more matches for the Football Ferns than anyone else.
And when you raise the fact that she has never been part of a win against Australia during her 150-match career, you can see it hurts.
The trans-Tasman rivalry is a big deal for all of New Zealand’s sports teams.
But none have struggled to the extent the Ferns have for the best part of the last three decades.
READ MORE:* Football Fern Rebekah Stott returns to field for first time after cancer diagnosis* Coach fumes after US clubs hold on to Football Ferns while releasing others* Football Fern Anna Leat saving lives as well as goals with plasma donation on eve of Olympics* New Zealand football squads to be expanded for Olympics after rule change
Since October 1994, when New Zealand won the first of two matches that were part of a qualifying tournament for the 1995 World Cup, the two teams have met a total of 30 times.
Australia won the rematch and qualified for that World Cup at New Zealand’s expense, then have gone on to win 26 of the 29 clashes that have followed, with the exceptions being three draws in 2012, 2013, and 2016.
Percival will have another chance to get that elusive win on Wednesday night [kickoff 11.30pm], when the two teams meet at Tokyo Stadium to get their Olympic campaigns underway, and she can’t wait to take the field.
“Being around for so long, I've always wanted to beat Australia, and this is a perfect opportunity for us to do that,” she said prior to departing.
“We're all really happy that we have got them first up, so we can hit the ground running, and hopefully we can get a result from that game which will push us through for the other two pool games.”
At the Olympics, the Football Ferns have landed in a group that features the United States, the reigning world champions, who they haven’t beaten since their first meeting in 1987, and who haven’t lost in more than two years; Australia; and Sweden, who they have never played before.
The scale of the Covid-19 pandemic was only just becoming clear the last time they were together, at the Algarve Cup in Portugal last March, where a penalty shootout win over Belgium was followed by losses to Italy and Norway.
They haven’t played since then, with NZ Football citing the various travel restrictions in place, the far-flung nature of the squad, and costs as the main reasons why they’ve been unable to assemble.
There have been no complaints about the governing body’s risk-averse approach, with the players and staff accepting the reality of the situation, but it does put the Ferns up against it in their fourth appearance at the Olympics, where their best chance for a win will come right away.
If they’re looking for positives, one would be that Australia have only just ended a long wait for games themselves, in April, and haven’t won in any of their five outings under new coach Tony Gustavsson, which could leave them ripe for an upset.
The Matildas nevertheless remain a team with superior talent, led by prolific striker Sam Kerr, and greater depth, and will be overwhelming favourites to extend their unbeaten streak, which started shortly after outgoing Ferns coach Tom Sermanni began the first of what were ultimately two stints in charge of Australia, all those years ago.
At the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup, the Ferns made an impressive start in their opening match against the Netherlands and had several chances to take a shock lead against the eventual runners-up, but ultimately lost 1-0 after conceding a late winner, and they will need a similar, if slightly better, effort this time around.
The two best third-placed teams will advance to the quarterfinals in the 12-team women’s football tournament, alongside the top two in each of the three four-team groups, which means a single win might be enough for the Ferns to reach the knockout stages, something they managed in London in 2012.
In Japan, the Ferns will be without two long-serving squad members, defender Rebekah Stott and midfielder Rosie White, who were unavailable for selection due to health issues.
White was briefly hospitalised in June due to a flare-up of a chronic condition, while Stott was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, in February, and has been sidelined while undergoing treatment, but did return to action last week.
Ferns captain Ali Riley said this week that playing for their absent team-mates was “something that drives us”.
“We think about them and we take their jerseys everywhere”.Football Ferns at the Tokyo Olympics Squad
Goalkeepers: Vic Esson, Erin Nayler, Anna Leat
Defenders: Liz Anton, CJ Bott, Claudia Bunge, Abby Erceg, Anna Green, Meikayla Moore, Ali Riley, Marisa van der Meer
Midfielders: Katie Bowen, Olivia Chance, Daisy Cleverley, Betsy Hassett, Annalie Longo, Ria Percival, Emma Rolston
Forwards: Gabi Rennie, Michaela Robertson, Paige Satchell, Hannah WilkinsonFixtures (all NZ time)
Wednesday, July 21, 11.30pm: v Australia
Saturday, July 24, 11.30pm: v United States
Tuesday, July 27, 8pm: v SwedenRecent Olympics
Rio 2016: Finished ninth out of 12 teams with one win (over Colombia) and two losses (to the US and France)
London 2012: Finished eighth out of 12 teams with one win (over Cameroon) and three losses (to Great Britain, Brazil, and the US)Outlook for Tokyo
The Football Ferns’ tournament opener against Australia will be their first match in almost 500 days – and their best chance of a win at the Tokyo Olympics, even if doing so will require them to end a 30-match winless run against their trans-Tasman rivals. The United States, the reigning world champions, who haven’t lost since early 2019, and Sweden are their other opponents. Earning a single point would mean the Ferns have exceeded expectations, but three might be all they need to advance to the knockout stages.