Vanuatu face tough start

The side will meet defending champions New Zealand on the oval ground at Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium in a game that appears, on paper at least, to be a mismatch of the highest degree.
The Football Ferns are heavily favoured to retain their title and have a group of world-class performers in their ranks. In contrast, this tournament marks Vanuatu’s first appearance in a women’s senior event and they are very much the underdogs.
“It’s going to be very tough,” Iwai says. “I never expected to play New Zealand first and I didn’t want to be in the same pool as them. They are on a much higher level to us so our aim is just to do our best.”
Sweden-based midfielder Kirsty Yallop will not face Vanuatu – she has not returned in time but will arrive in Auckland before New Zealand’s second match against Cook Islands on Friday.
But Vanuatu may still have to contend with the likes of Hayley Moorwood, who recently put pen to paper on a deal with English giants Chelsea, and Ali Riley, the OFC Women’s Player of the Year and USA Women’s Professional Soccer League Rookie of the Year.
“We know that New Zealand are very strong,” Iwai says. “I have seen their U-20 team play and the senior side will be another step up from that.”
Iwai must wish he could strap the boots on himself and get out there to help his charges. The 30-year-old is a highly accomplished player and starred in Vanuatu’s FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
He is also a previous nominee for the OFC Player of the Year title and has been playing his club football in Australia for the past three seasons.
He has tried to pass on some of his class and knowledge to the squad but has not had time on his side.
“I have only been with the team for a few weeks so it has been hard to make a lot of progress. I would’ve prefered to have six months or so but that’s just the way it is.”
To make things even tougher for Iwai, most of his players do not have backgrounds in the 11-a-side game.
“They have been playing futsal for their whole lives so it’s hard for them to come out onto a big pitch and play football,” he says.
Although he realises his squad will probably come away from the New Zealand game empty-handed, Iwai will not be happy returning home without a win. Vanuatu will meet Cook Islands and Tahiti in their other Group A matches and Iwai has his sights set on a pair of wins.
“We will try to win the other two games at least, that’s our aim,” he says.
“But the main thing is to do as well as we can so we can attract more women to play football when we go back home.”

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