Holding the line: The Football Ferns defenders at the World Cup
A captain who has never lived in New Zealand, a cancer survivor and the All Blacks head coach's daughter are among women set to represent this country at the World Cup - in part one of a two-parter RNZ profiles the squad's defenders and goalkeepers.
Coach Jitka Klimková has pinned her hopes on 23 players who have had the luxury of training together for two months in Auckland in contrast to most Ferns squads that assemble a couple of days beforehand ahead of their international fixtures.
The Ferns who are in Group A will face Norway in the cup opener at Eden Park on 20 July followed by the Philippines (25 July in Wellington) and Switzerland (30 July in Dunedin).
While the Ferns' buildup has not been impressive (a 10-match winless streak) they are determined to make amends in front of home fans on the biggest stage - none more so than US-based captain Ali Riley.
"I hope that we live up to the slogan of 'beyond greatness' by creating a legacy for the Ferns who come after us," she said.
Name: Ali Riley
Date of birth: 30 October 1987
Club: Angel City USA
Riley, who was an 11-year-old spectator at the 1999 World Cup final in California, credits the US women's triumph with lighting a spark. "We suddenly dreamt about doing something huge with our lives," she said of many girls from her generation. It's led to a career that has seen her play for clubs in the US, Sweden, England and Germany. She brings impressive form at Angel City into the World Cup alongwith her tactical acumen and composure under pressure. Her leadership skills have been obvious from early on and among several captaincy stints, she's been wearing the Ferns captain's armband for the last five seasons. The Asian-American has never lived in New Zealand but is eligible to play through her Kiwi father. Capped 152 times, it's her fifth World Cup and she's hopeful players will be more outspoken on social justice issues than their male counterparts in Qatar last year.
Name: Rebekah Stott
Date of birth: 17 June 1993
Club: Brighton & Hove
Stott has overcome her greatest challenge before stepping out on the pitch - undergoing four months of chemotherapy to beat cancer, specifically Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was "a curved ball" she had to go through - with the support of family and her team-mates. She shared her ordeal on Instagram and a blog to distract herself and inspire others. The road back to full fitness was rocky, with a gym session leaving her tired for up to three days. But recover she did. "It's like the old Stotty is back, in terms of my body and my strength." She's now back at the heart of the Ferns' defence and said dreaming of playing in the World Cup at a packed Eden Park was her "biggest motivator" during her health trials. "Just continue being yourself and you'll get through because what else can you do?"
Name: Katie Bowen
Date of birth: 15 April 1994
Club: Melbourne City
Regarded as a tenacious defender, Bowen chalked up a decade playing in the US (although she's pleased she hasn't picked up "an American twang") before moving to Australia. Bowen is very close to her family, and found it painful to be stranded in the US while New Zealand's borders were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a tortuous time, she says. She has two "besties" in the squad, Hannah Wilkinson and Erin Nayler, and is pleased to be playing and flatting with the former in Melbourne. Post-football, she's considering becoming a teacher. "I've always wanted to be a special needs teacher, and I'd love to work with the Special Olympics. Hopefully after football I land somewhere great," she said.
Name: CJ Bott
Date of birth: 22 April 1995
Club: Leicester City
Regarded as the Ferns' best player for her speed, attitude, and aggression, her presence has been sorely missed as she combats a run of injuries. After stints early on with clubs in Germany, Sweden and Norway she's now making her mark with the Foxes as she aims to be fully fit for her third World Cup campaign. Bott is excited about playing on home turf in an event that wasn't on the radar when she was growing up. "No matter what team I ever play for that's going to be the biggest moment of my career," she told Sky Sport. "I could win the Champions League final and it still wouldn't compare for me to playing at home in front of a sold-out crowd." As for embarrassing career lows, she said at one stage she missed every penalty she took in training: "It was a shameful year."
Name: Michaela Foster
Date of birth: 9 January 1999
Club: Wellington Phoenix
Foster was previously a bolter after a sparkling debut season with her club (she scooped five end-of-season awards) and is now considered a likely starter for the cup opener against Norway. Her set-piece ability off both feet is among her strengths. She's the daughter of All Blacks coach Ian Foster and made her Ferns debut last February at the stadium in her hometown, Hamilton, where her famous dad still holds the record for the most caps in Waikato rugby. "It's my stadium now Dad," she joked. "I have a lot of good memories, family memories, there, mostly with rugby."
Name: Liz Anton
Date of birth: 12 December 1998
Club: Perth Glory
Position: Right-back / fullback
Anton is one of the most focused team members - completing a science degree while playing professionally. Post-football "I would love to work in the green chemistry or medicinal chemistry field," she said. Managing her studies while training and playing has required an ability to recognise stress and deal with it so it doesn't adversely affect her life. Anton is regarded as a strong composed defender and such was her impact in her first season in Perth she won the Most Glorious Player award. In her first two seasons she played for the duration of all 32 matches.
Name: Claudia Bunge
Date of birth: 21 September 1999
Club: Melbourne Victory
Bunge (Ngāi Tūhoe) has a reputation for cool composure at the heart of the defence coupled with a steely tackle. She sees the World Cup as a chance to encourage more girls into the game which is not as popular in New Zealand as Europe. The country's hosting of the U17 World Cup in 1999 was what inspired her. "Seeing girls not too much older than me playing international football was so awesome, and it was when I decided 'This is what I want to do'." Since then she's been to the U17 and U20 World Cups, and the Tokyo Olympics but views the upcoming event as the pinnacle. "People should be really excited for what's about to happen," she said. Bunge is also the host nation's representative on the Team Visa programme which promotes the women's game worldwide.
Name: Victoria Esson
Date of birth: 6 March 1991
"Are the sacrifices going to be worth it?" Esson said that's the question she has often asked herself as she cemented the role of first choice keeper. There are no easy pathways in top level sport, she said. "Everyone's got their own journey and this happens to be mine." Esson started as a striker and reckons every season she got moved further and further back until ending up in the goalmouth. "It's been a slow burn," she said, referring to almost retiring in her early 20s when she was dropped and not turning pro until she was 27. "I've done things backwards." She's also been nominated as the squad member most likely to survive a zombie apocalypse "because she knows how to do everything" including boiling an egg in a kettle and making fun videos of her antics.
Name: Anna Leat
Date of birth: 26 June 2001
Club: Aston Villa
Leat had a stunning debut for her club - saving four penalties in a Conti Cup group stage shootout against Manchester United. At an U17 World Cup in 2018, Leat not only saved a penalty in a quarterfinal shootout against Japan she stepped up and scored the winning goal - earning New Zealand an historic spot in the semis. Coach Leon Birnie said he made his choice on the morning of the match because he was impressed with Leat's aura of confidence. A former karate exponent, Leat used to busk on the streets of Auckland to earn money for her football gear.
Name: Erin Nayler
Date of birth: 17 April 1992
Club: IFK Norrkoping, Sweden
Capped 83 times, Nayler said a strong sense of self-belief has equipped her for the rigours of high-level football. At her first professional club in the USA, she got no game time and was released after three weeks. "It helped me to grow as a player, especially mentally." A tough attitude was evident early on - as a 10-year-old she made a save and played the rest of the match with a broken wrist. After that, her dad took a hand in training her to dive safely - putting a mattress on the back lawn till he judged she was good enough to dive on the grass. It worked - the squad's "old hand" has never broken a bone since, although she was troubled by a hip injury earlier this year.
RNZ with additional reporting by Newsroom's Locker Room