Toothless Football Ferns bundled out of World Cup

New Zealand 1 Cameroon 2 - Football Ferns eliminated from World Cup.

It’s doubtful they’ll see it this way, but the Football Ferns’ World Cup campaign came to a just and merciful conclusion in Montpellier on Friday morning, when Cameroon summoned a brilliant winner with the last kick of a match both teams needed to win to stay alive.

Ajara Nchout’s second goal of the match in the fifth minute of injury time, to break a 1-1 tie, was no more than both teams deserved. That may be harsh on a New Zealand team that battled admirably for long periods during their three matches in France, however when the dust settled they were palpably the fourth-best team in their group.

Had it not been for an unfortunate Cameroon own goal in the 80th minute, the New Zealanders would have exited the tournament without even troubling the scorers. In a way, given the nature of that goal, they still did.

Once the disappointment of coming so close to qualifying from pool play for the first time – they were a brilliant save from Cameroon goal keeper Annette Ngo Ndom, from a Betsy Hassett header, from snatching victory themselves - the grim reality of their shortcomings will set in.

The Ferns entered the match confident of beating a side ranked 27 places below them on the world rankings, and knowing the chips had fallen their way to create a likely pathway to qualification could they muster that result.

However, they were second-best for most of the biggest match of their lives, dominated physically and lacking the technical ability to match what little ambition they displayed.

As it always is, the question must now be asked whether it is time for the nation to turn its footballing eyes to Asia? Major tournament qualification via a horrendously weak Oceania Confederation achieves the desired result of getting there, however a lack of proper regular international competition means the Kiwis arrive at these events hamstrung.

New Zealand Football served up the best possible diet of international friendly matches in the build-up to the tournament, however such fare is clearly little substitute for truly competitive international matches.

Friendlies are ultimately just that. The writing is clearly on the wall and it states: the New Zealand Women’s football team has never won a match at a World Cup. Still. And they should be better than that.

If progress is measured by performances at major tournaments – and it should be – the nation has gone backwards. In the group stage at the London Olympics in 2012, the Football Ferns beat Cameroon 3-1.

Cameroon is not a nation that has invested heavily in developing the women’s game in the intervening years, yet their players were generally superior to the Kiwis.

Still, the Ferns had their moments in France. They came closest to scoring a goal from one of their own boots in the thrilling opening exchanges against the classy Dutch, when Olivia Chance crashed a shot onto the crossbar, and were deeply unlucky not to emerge from that match with what would have been a deserved draw.

They were totally outplayed by Canada in losing 0-2, which set up the must-win showdown with Cameroon. A dire first half ended 0-0 - the third straight occasion the Ferns achieved scoreboard parity, at least, at the mid-way point of a match. But hopes the Ferns would unveil an attacking threat against lesser opposition remained unfulfilled, with their two shots on goal speculative, harmless affairs.

The Africans deserved their lead through a classy finish from Nchout on 57 minutes, and would have put the game to bed had it not been for some heroics by Ferns keeper Erin Nayler.

When a Ferns goal did finally arrive, it came via the most fortunate of routes, with Cameroon defender Aurelle Awona slicing an attempted clearance of an innocuous Katie Bowen cross into her own net from near the penalty spot.

From there it was anyone’s game as both teams pressed desperately for the goal that would see them avoid elimination.

Hassett’s goal-bound header was brilliantly saved, and Chance had one final opportunity to unleash a left foot shot, after Hannah Wilkinson’s touch just let her down in space in the box, however the Kiwi midfielder couldn’t find the mark.

With centre halves Abby Erceg and Rebekah Stott committed forward in a desperate final attack, the Ferns were left short at the back. The Africans fed Nchout for one final throw of the dice and she did brilliantly, cutting into the box and bending the ball past Nayler.

It was a cruel fate for the Kiwis, but nonetheless deserved. In the end, they were defeated by the type of goal they never themselves looked like scoring at the tournament.

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