This week we look at the draw for the Oceania Women's Nations Cup, which doubles as the 2019 Women's World Cup and 2020 Olympic Games qualifiers, with only the winner advancing to France 2019 and Tokyo 2020. We will focus on some news from Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand, with the later the odds on favourites to win the tournament, but lost this month to Japan 2-1 at home in front of a record crowd and is experiencing player dissatisfaction with their Austrian head coach, who will probably be gone shortly.
Oceania Women's Nations Cup Draw
Fiji will host a four team preliminary qualifier in August, along with American Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The winner of that group will advance to the 8 team OFC Finals in New Caledonia in November/December, where they will face the Cook Islands, New Zealand and Tonga in Group B. In Group A the hosts New Caledonia will meet Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tahiti.
This will be the 11th edition of the Oceania Confederation Championships. French Overseas Territory New Caledonia will host for only the second time, after staging the inaugural edition of the OFC Women's Championship in 1983. Other hosts have been now Asian Football Confederation member Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. They OFC Event will be held from November 18 to December 1.
New Caledonia in 2015 finished runners-up at the XIV Pacific Games in Port Moresby behind fellow Group B side Papua New Guinea. As a French territory, New Caledonia cannot qualify for the Women's World Cup or Olympic Games, and if they did win the tournament, the second place side would advance.
Papua New Guinea has held the gold medal in the Pacific Games ever since the women's tournament was introduced in 2003, and they've also been runners-up in the OFC Women's Nations Cup for the past three events. Australia won in 1994, 1998 and 2003, while Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) won in 1986 and 1989. New Zealand won the inaugural tournament in 1983, defeating Australia 3-2 in the final, and then won in 1991, 2007, 2010 and 2014 and will be aiming for their sixth title in 11 events. Cook Islands finished third in the last two tournaments.
Tahiti and Samoa have never finished in the top three.
In Group A New Zealand has won five continental titles and who boast a large majority of professional players among their squad.
Although Cook Islands have finished third in the past two editions (and since Cook Islanders hold New Zealand citizenship, a number of their players are active in New Zealand-based clubs), and Tonga in the one before that in 2007, they are expected to struggle against the might of the Football Ferns.
For many of these nations, women's soccer is a strictly amateur activity. Matelita Vuakoso (24) was raised in the small rural village of Savusavu. She is a national team goalkeeper, plays at the club level for Labasa and is a senior instructor for the Just Play social development/football program—developed by the Australian Football Federation for children ages 6-12 when they were bidding for the men's World Cup in 2022, which Qatar won. She is also a Commonwealth Sport for Development and Peace advocate, a wife and a mother. Vuakoso told the Fiji Federation website: "I come from a very poor background, where my parents financially struggled." She wanted to be a teacher but did not win a scholarship. Vuakoso continued: "I was than selected to play for my country during the South Pacific Games and OFC playoffs and I joined the Fiji FA Just Play Programme as a volunteer. All the doors started opening then."
Now living in Suva after marrying former national and Nasinu midfielder Ronald Ram, Vuakoso has become a role model for other young women in Fiji and beyond. She wants to help young Fijians balance modernization and tradition and growing respect for women and girls through sport through the Just Play program. Having grown up on a subsistence farm, she also wants to purchase a far for exporting goods: "I want to buy a farm and use that for commercial goods because at home it is only for home food; I want to be able to give something back, for bringing me up and for making me the person I want to be today. When I decided football was going to be my priority I had to invest everything to show that I had the right talent. It wasn't easy, there were some tough moments growing up. You have to take responsibility and fight for certain things because your family can't take on everything. Football changed my life, my family's life and many people's lives. Thanks to football I have had success in my life and I can't complain. Through football I have seen a lot of beautiful things and I still have a lot of good things to experience. To have reached this level means a lot to me because I know I would never [have] had these experiences in Fiji."
She was also one of the speakers from Fiji during the 2018 Commonwealth Games debate forum in Gold Coast, Queensland Australia, this past April on the "The Value of Sport: Maximizing Opportunities in the Commonwealth."
At the league level, the Ba Women's team retained its Vodafone Senior Women's League title after beating Labasa 1-0 in May at Fiji FA Academy Grounds in Vatuwaqa. Ba's Cema Nasau scored the winner late in the first half. Ba defeated Tailevu Naitasiri 10-0 in their opening match on Friday. Labasa coach Saniala Bera was pleased despite the loss: "I am happy with performance of my girl's and I think Ba was a better team and won. Ba came out well prepared but nothing to be taken away from my girls as they played their heart out and did what they could till the final whistle. We will come back more prepared this year."
Ba earned FJD1500 (about US$750) richer while Labasa received FJD750 (US$375) as runners-up and Tailevu Naitasiri earned FJD500 (US$250) for third.
Vanuatu women's national team defeated the Solomon Islands 5-0 in the first game of the Pacific Mini Games which they hosted in December of 2017. A Pauline Willie goal was all that separated the teams at half-time with four goals coming in the final ten minutes, a brace from Monica Melteviel and one each from Jane Alatoa and substitute Toukawa Abock. Vanuatu came into the Mini Games as one of the most prepared of the women's football teams after spending over five months in China working with coach Wu Kangzhen, who was with the side in Port Vila.
Fiji won their first game also by a 5-0 over Vanuatu, with four first half goals, and has been doing well at the youth level in recent years. Fijian youth internationals Cema Nasau and Lusia Tamanitoakula, the later who won the OFC U-19 Golden Boot title for most goals, both scored braces, with Jotivini Tabua's 19th minute goal opening the flood gates for Fiji.
On 7 December Vanuatu's women won the Pacific Mini Games for the first time in their history with a 2-1 victory over Fiji. Fiji and Vanuatu had previously played to a 0-0 draw during the group stage. In the 62nd minute, substitute Leisale Solomon scored from 25 meters out. Cema Nasau found the equalizer in the 85th minute for Fiji, but a minute later in the 86th minute, Junane Ishmael hit back with the title winning strike for Vanuatu, from a long cross which curled into the net.
Vanautu Football Federation CEO Albert Manaroto was ecstatic with the win: "For the women, this is a milestone in the development of football. We can't forget that what happened here, the impact goes a long way in terms of showcasing the capabilities of women. It's the result of hard work, dedication from the team and the local female coaches and our Chinese coach who was able to achieve this success story. We want to acknowledge the partnership with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, Team Vanuatu management team, the hard working coaches and football academy coaches, VFF staff and our member associations including PVFA, whose long time assistance has helped assist with the respective men's and women's teams preparations." Vanuatu, one of the smallest FIFA members with a total population of over 270,000, has shown that a joint effort with the Federation and key government ministries can propel the growth of women's football. It would not be a surprise if Vanuatu qualifies for the OFC Cup of Nations Final Round later this summer.
New Zealand's Football Ferns fell to Japan 3-1 on June 10 in front of a record crowd at Westpac Stadium in Wellington of 7,236 surpassing the previous record set in Auckland's QBE Stadium in 2007 against Canada. Head coach Andreas Heraf (50), a native of Austria who played in Germany and Austria and coached the men's U-17 and U-20 national teams in Austria, has a goal for New Zealand to advance past the group stage at a Women's World Cup, which would necessitate winning a first game, after tying three and losing 9 in four previous World Cup appearances. He was appointed as a permanent head coach in December after a short spell as interim coach.
After the game Heraf said: "The result against Japan was disappointing but it was pleasing to score a goal against one of the best teams in the world and also keep them scoreless for a whole half – both of which we have struggled to do in the past….In regards to the Ferns, I'm really convinced we will do that in the future and it's our big goal. We still have some way to go but I think we will be able to compete with teams like Japan and even beat them on the world stage if we continue to work on technical improvements, are well-organized, have a high fitness level and a strong team spirit."
In the absence of injured regulars Ali Rile (Rosengard of Sweden), Ria Percival (FC Basel of Switzerland and ex-Frankfurt and Jena of Germany) and Olivia Chance (Everton of England and ex-University of South Florida) Heraf used up and coming 19-year-old Sarah Morton (Western Springs) while 23-year-old Stephanie Skilton (Papakura City, who played at Syracuse University) moved to central defense.
Japan, who won the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2011 and were runners-up four years later and won the Asian Cup earlier this year with a 1-0 win over Australia, utilized a first-half hat trick from Mina Tanaka (NTV Beleza). The Ferns hit back immediately after going behind to the opening goal, with Meikayla Moore (FC Koln of Germany) scoring her first ever international strike.
The Ferns had never beaten Japan in eight previous encounters and New Zealand had to play a largely defensive match to control their well-known attack. Heraf said: "We worked on our defensive shape against Japan but we are also working on different areas, especially the attacking area because it is really important to score goals and we have not done this enough previously....We are working on the different areas piece-by-piece – defending, attacking and set pieces. All these areas will be put together as a parcel for the World Cup and we will then be able to compete against these teams." Heraf added that the scoreline might have been 8-0 if New Zealand had not adopted a defensive approach.
Japan 3 (Mina Tanaka 17', 34', 44')
New Zealand 1 (Meikayla Moore 18')
New Zealand: 1. Erin Nayler (GK), 4. CJ Bott, 5. Meikayla Moore, 6. Rebekah Stott, 9. Amber Hearn (29. Emma Rolston 83'), 11. Sarah Gregorius (20. Malia Steinmetz 90'), 12. Betsy Hassett (14. Katie Bowen 45'), 13. Rosie White (10. Annalie Longo 68'), 17. Hannah Wilkinson (19. Paige Satchell 75'), 26. Sarah Morton, 27. Stephanie Skilton (25. Liz Anton 89')
Subs: 3. Anna Green, 21. Anna Leat (GK), 23. Nadia Olla (GK)
Coach: Andreas Heraf
New Zealand Football Ferns Squad versus Japan:
Anna Leat – East Coast Bays
Erin Nayler – Girondins Bordeaux, France
Nadia Olla – Western Springs
Liz Anton – Western Springs
CJ Bott – USV Jena, Germany
Anna Green – Reading, England
Sarah Morton – Western Springs
Meikayla Moore – FC Koln, Germany
Ali Riley – FC Rosengard, Sweden
Stephanie Skilton – Papakura City
Rebekah Stott – Sky Blue FC, USA
Midfielders & Forwards:
Katie Bowen – Utah Royals, USA
Betsy Hassett – KR Reykjavik, Iceland
Annalie Longo – Cashmere Technical
Emma Rolston – Wellington United
Paige Satchell - Three Kings United
Malia Steinmetz – Forrest Hill Milford United
Sarah Gregorius – Upper Hutt City
Amber Hearn – FC Koln, Germany
Hannah Wilkinson – Vittsjo GIK, Sweden
Rosie White – Chicago Red Stars, USA
In other news from New Zealand, an independent investigator will be appointed by the New Zealand Football Executive Committee (EXCO), in association with the NZ Professional Footballers Association (NZPFA), to review the Football Ferns environment, as announced on June 20. New Zealand Football received a letter from the NZPFA on Monday with a number of complaints from the players of the Football Ferns (which 13 players had signed), who were concerned about Heraf methods and tactics, following another letter from a previous staff member. Football Ferns coach and NZ Football Technical Director Andreas Heraf has been given a notice of investigation with a proposal for suspension, in the meantime he is on special leave with immediate effect from his roles until the completion of the necessary employment processes.
New Zealand Football President Deryck Shaw said: "We are very disappointed to be in a position where some of the players from within the Football Ferns have felt the need to formally lodge a complaint with NZ Football and would like to thank them for coming forward….We hold player welfare as a matter of utmost importance and that is why we are conducting a thorough, independent review. We want to ensure we better understand these issues in an objective review. There is no place for inappropriate behaviour of any kind with New Zealand Football. New Zealand Football has clear policies and procedures to protect the welfare of staff and players. We are focused on creating an environment which gives the Football Ferns, and all of our national teams, the best chance of winning on the world stage."
The review will commence this week with the appointment of an independent investigator. The terms of reference under which the investigator is engaged, and the individual appointed to conduct the investigation, will be signed off by the NZPFA."
One of New Zealand's leading players, United States-based Abby Erceg, retired after playing 132 matches for New Zealand, citing Heraf's approach in previous international matches. It was a surprise as she is having an amazing season in defense for the best team in NWSL—the North Carolina Courage—who have lost 1 game in 14 with a 10-3-1 record for 33 points and allowing only 13 goals in 14 games. She later told New Zealand media: "I couldn't stand to wear that (national symbol) on my chest any more when his vision was to cower in a corner and not get beat by too much."
Earlier this year, the NZFA and players association signed a pay agreement with the female players for pay parity with the men for match compensation, bonuses and travel expenses.
Expect Heraf to depart with someone else coming in as head coach before the OFC qualifier later this year. There should be no shortage of candidates, particularly from abroad, with a team that virtually can write its ticket to the Women's World Cup. However, the Federation must sort this situation out quickly as continued turmoil could be a distraction for the OFC Nations Cup, particularly one on the road in New Caledonia.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey