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French Farewell Spotlights Ferns' Future Prospects
Story by Jeremy Ruane

The Football Ferns' hopes of securing a second successive quarter-final berth at the Olympic Women's Football Tournament were dashed by France in the Fonte Nova Arena in Salvador on August 9, the victors playing well within themselves in prevailing by a solid 3-0 scoreline.

The first half-hour of play was very staid - it was almost as if both teams were looking to playing to not lose, with a scoreless draw a result which would serve the purposes of both teams where quarter-finals progression was concerned, no matter what happened in other matches.

"Les Bleues" were the more threatening side during this period, but the white-clad French were well contained by New Zealand's rearguard, who allowed just one shot worthy of the name in this period, a twenty yard volley from Jessica Houara in the 27th minute, which sailed past the post after Louisa Cadamuro's corner had been cleared to the fullback.

The Football Ferns offered little to excite their fans, however, too often wasting possession with wayward passes. An ambitious thirty yard free-kick from Katie Bowen, which struck the wall in the fourth minute, was all they could muster shots-wise in the early stages of a contest against opponents whom they had scored in all three of their previous engagements.

Eye-catching French fullback Sakina Karchaoui earned a cheer from the crowd every time she was on the ball, because she looked to be the one person on the park intent on making a difference on the scoreboard, something which the good-sized crowd was keen to encourage.

The dummy she sold Ria Percival in the 32nd minute really got the fans going, and while her resulting cross deflected off Annalie Longo back to Erin Nayler, Karchaoui had raised the expectation levels, and triggered a response from her coach, Philippe Bergeroo, which would change the game within the next six minutes.

Marie Laure Delie was the player France sacrificed, and on came one of their star turns, Eugenie Le Sommer, ten minutes before half-time. Before she had a chance to make an impact on proceedings, however, the Football Ferns carved out their only genuine chance of the half.

Betsy Hassett and Katie Duncan combined to angle a pass through for Hannah Wilkinson, whose bustling style saw her evade the clutches of both Amandine Henry and the imposing Wendie Renaud en route into the penalty area.

From an acute angle, she fired goalwards, but the diving figure of Sarah Bouhhadi ensured parity would remain, but only for a few more seconds. For once the ball was back in play, France concocted the move which would see them take the lead, seven minutes before half-time.

Renard and Karchaoui were the instigators, but it was when the fullback linked with Cadamuro that alarm bells started to ring. The midfield general - now playing under her married name; she was previously Louisa Necib - promptly linked with Le Sommer, who laid the ball back into the stride of Elise Bussaglia, some twenty-five yards from goal.

She let fly with a swerving drive which Nayler did well to turn onto the post. Where the 'keeper did not do so well, however, was in recovering to prevent Le Sommer - the first player to react - from firing home the rebound, the substitute's angled drive passing under Nayler's diving frame en route to the back of the net.

Now the Football Ferns had to come out of their shells and start producing something more creative and inspirational than the bog-standard hopeful - and often over-hit - ball out of defence, which looks to exploit the speed of the ever-willing but technically deficient Wilkinson and the occasional overlapping run of Ali Riley.

But to whom to turn? Since the injury-enforced retirement of Hayley Bowden (nee Moorwood), the Football Ferns have lacked a genuine playmaker, compensating for the former captain's absence with a hard-working midfield combination, which Annalie Longo enhances with her will-o'-the-wisp inventiveness, a wildcard factor played when the opportunity avails itself and the opposition are caught on the hop.

In other words, the Football Ferns have become too predictable, and for the most part, the teams ranked in the world's top ten have worked them out, as recent results - including this one - bear out.

Granted, there are days when that's not the case - the first game in Brazil last year, and the Etihad Stadium performance against Australia in June instantly spring to mind - but such days are all too infrequent.

All too often, the phrase 'unfulfilled potential' springs to mind where the Football Ferns are concerned. There is no doubt that, as a group, they have it within them to go beyond their present level.

Perhaps they need some fresh ideas - 'next level thinking' - to take them further along the path they are forging. One thing they certainly need is a genuine 'X Factor', the lack of which is contributing to their present inability to take that next step in their development.

Who is the Football Ferns' Carli Lloyd? Louisa Cadamuro? Marta? Simone Laudehr? Mana Iwabuchi? Every one of those players is capable of breaking a game open and doing something nigh on indefensible from an opponent's perspective, particularly in the big games, when the pressure to deliver is at its optimum.

The players you'd think capable of doing such deeds for the Football Ferns are all too infrequently called upon to start games for the team, and that's if they've even been considered for the task.

More often than not since the last Olympics campaign, Rosie White has been employed as an impact player off the bench, while you have to go back to 2011 to find the last occasion when instinctive game-changing talents such as Hannah Wall and Liv Chance last graced the starting line-up.

Such talents need to be given their head, unleashed and encouraged to make a difference. All too often, however, they find themselves stifled by a conservative approach, where the 'X factor' plays second fiddle to the 'fear factor', and playing to not lose becomes the default approach.

Following France's opening goal in this game, that approach was no longer an option for the Football Ferns. But seconds before half-time, they could have been trailing 2-0, a concerted French raid culminating in a Karchaoui cross to Elodie Thomis, whose ball back in wasn't cleared by Rebekah Stott, inviting Le Sommer to let off a snapshot from eight yards.

Thankfully for Tony Readings' charges, the ball flew over the bar, while France's next attempt on goal, a solo raid from Thomis in the 51st minute, deflected to safety off Riley.

It was now or never time for the Football Ferns, as a second French goal would leave their quarter-final hopes dangling by a thread. Percival fed Wilkinson on the right, but Bouhhadi anticipated her low cross intended for Hassett, a feat she repeated in the 61st minute as she dashed out of her area to thwart Wilkinson's pursuit of an Amber Hearn through ball.

In between times, Hearn had played the wall pass in a one-two with Longo which allowed the midfielder to dash forward before letting fly from twenty yards, a shot which lacked accuracy.

The French, too, went close during this period, Cadamuro releasing Thomis down the right before dashing forward in anticipation of the speedster's cross. Le Sommer, too, was in the danger zone, but both French stars were thwarted by Stott's timely blocks on this occasion.

When Cadamuro next made a darting run from midfield, however, the Football Ferns weren't so fortunate. Houara and Bussaglia combined to release Thomis down the right once more in the 63rd minute, and despite the attentions of three opponents she still managed to deliver quality into the goalmouth, right onto the head of the incoming figure of Cadamuro, who guided the ball beyond Nayler - 2-0.

And so nearly three four minutes later, Renard's downward header, from Cadamuro's pinpoint corner, flashing inches past the far post from six yards out - the French captain couldn't believe she'd missed!

Enter White, her first act a snapshot volley well wide of the mark after a free-kick from Abby Erceg - her red card against Colombia having rightly been rescinded - was cleared.

White's next contribution earned the Football Ferns a free-kick on the edge of the 'D', but Longo wastefully drove the set-piece into the defensive wall, an attempt which fell in between saves by Nayler.

Her first arose from a Stott error, Claire Lavogez pouncing on the ball and linking with Le Sommer to present Cadamuro with a shooting chance. Nayler denied both this and a long-range effort from Lavogez nine minutes from time, as time ticked away on the Football Ferns' Olympic dreams.

Four minutes from time came their last chance to reduce the deficit, the opportunity's architect a player whose impact on proceedings was akin to a bull in a china shop! For until Jasmine Pereira's entry to the fray, thirteen minutes from time, the Football Ferns hadn't even conceded a foul in the contest - a most remarkable feat in itself.

Cue the substitute, who was booked within five minutes of coming on, and who could very easily have earned a second yellow card a little later, for the bookable offence of shirt-pulling.

In between times, she got the better of Karchaoui on the right and engineered the space from which she picked out Hearn in the penalty area with a angled cross. The striker looked to slip the ball under the advancing figure of Bouhhadi, but the 'keeper's legs foiled the Football Ferns' all-time-leading markswoman, the only chance Hearn had been afforded all game.

As the score stood - 2-0 - heading into stoppage time, the Football Ferns required China to beat Sweden in the last of the group matches involving the third-placed teams to join France in the last right.

Then disaster struck, with the angle of Riley's challenge on Thomis in the penalty area prompting Mexican referee Lucila Venegas to point to the spot, from where Cadamuro sent Nayler the wrong way with a text-book spot-kick to, as things turned out (China and Sweden drew 0-0), seal the Football Ferns' fate.

Yes, it was a tough group in which the Football Ferns were drawn, with two of the world's top three-ranked nations among their opponents in same. But there was plenty of talking up of New Zealand's chances by both management and players, suggesting they could progress in spite of these hurdles.

Right now, those comments don't look too clever - they haven't walked the talk, if you will. Indeed, it has to be said that the team didn't produce anywhere near enough of an attacking threat across all three of their group games for anyone to justifiably say that the Football Ferns were deserving of a place in the quarter-finals at Rio 2016.

There's no doubting the players gave their all for the cause, and there will be some very disappointed young women who'll doubtless be wondering 'what else could I have done?' as they reflect on their Olympics campaign.

The honest answer is 'Not a lot'. But when one looks back to London 2012, one notes that, with the exception of retirees Jenny Bindon, Hayley Bowden and Rebecca Smith, the players who reached the last eight back then were all on deck again this time round.

No doubt a couple of those players will be considering their international futures at present. But for the most part, the bulk of this group should still be around for France 2019 and Tokyo 2020.

Cue the challenging question which NZ Football will need to answer once all the tournament reviews and inquests have been completed - what changes do we need to make in order for this group of women to reach the next level and finally fulfil their true potential on the world stage?

The Football Ferns' first round eliminations at both Canada 2015 and Rio 2016 suggests that the answer most definitely shouldn't be 'no changes necessary'.

Football Ferns: Nayler; Percival, Stott, Erceg, Riley; Bowen (Pereira, 77 (booked, 82), Duncan, Longo, Hassett (Gregorius, 60); Wilkinson (White, 71), Hearn

France: Bouhhadi; Houara, Delannoy, Renard, Karchaoui; Thomis, Bussaglia (Abily, 67), Henry (Hamraoui, 72), Cadamuro, Lavogez; Delie (Le Sommer, 35)

Referee: Lucila Venegas (Mexico).

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