'Dark place' - Bullying scandal motivates New Zealand women for World Cup

Wellington (AFP) –


The New Zealand women's football team has emerged "from a dark place" after a bullying scandal and is determined to make its mark at next month's World Cup, striker Sarah Gregorius says.

The national team, known as the Football Ferns, were in disarray last year, with many of the squad in revolt and refusing to play under coach Andreas Heraf.

Heraf, who was in charge of the women's team almost as an afterthought to his main role of New Zealand Football's (NZF) technical director, was accused of creating a toxic environment of bullying, intimidation and harassment.

NZF initially backed Heraf, who denied any wrongdoing, but the governing body eventually backpedalled after an independent inquiry supported claims against the Austrian.

It resulted in the NZF making a formal apology to the players, with Heraf, the federation's chief executive and chairman all departing over a tumultuous four-month period.

"It really highlighted that you can't get away with that any more. There's too much attention being paid now to cut corners and women's football deserves attention and respect," Gregorius told AFP.

"As horrible as that situation was, that's a silver lining we can take from it."

Gregorius, a pocket dynamo who has scored 33 goals in 90 appearances for New Zealand, said the difficulties had forged a determination in the team to excel at the World Cup in France.

The 31-year-old said it had also swung public support behind a team that had often struggled for attention in the rugby-mad nation.

"It's not so much about expectation or pressure... it's more just support, particularly off the back of what happened last year, knowing that the team has come from a bit of a dark place," she said.

"This is an opportunity to really put to bed that episode in a really redemptive way."

- 'We don't hide' -

The veteran forward acknowledges international sporting perceptions about New Zealand are shaped by rugby union, but said women's football matches the oval-ball code in terms of grassroots participation.

"The wonderful thing about New Zealand is we have so much green space and everyone's so outdoorsy," she said.

"So there's plenty of sporting talent to go around, even if rugby does dominate the landscape a wee bit."

At the elite level, the New Zealand women's rugby team has won five World Cups, making them even more dominant than the fabled All Blacks men's team, with three.

In contrast, Gregorius said the Football Ferns' world ranking of 19 "is probably reflective of where we're at".

The women's game is wholly amateur in New Zealand and Gregorius said rugby in New Zealand was ahead of football in developing a professional pathway for female players.

The Football Ferns also face a similar gulf with their major international competitors in women's football, most of which have professional leagues.

But the New Zealanders have been boosted after a number of senior players returned following Heraf's departure and Gregorius said they were full of confidence ahead of the World Cup.

They have a dedicated mentor in Scottish coach Tom Sermanni, formerly with powerhouses the United States and Australia, who is liked and respected by the players.

They are in a tough group including the Netherlands, Canada and Cameroon, but said they were familiar with all their opponents, who would underestimate them at their peril.

"We're not afraid of anyone, we don't shackle ourselves and we don't hide," she said.

"We might be the underdog in a lot of areas but we don't adopt that mentality. We believe we can match it with the best in the world."