New Zealand’s Olympic soccer preparations were handed a blow a couple weeks before the tournament kicks off, and Football Ferns coach Tom Sermanni is not happy about it. Team captain Ali Riley and defensive star Abby Erceg were not allowed to join up with their national team until after this weekend’s NWSL games, leading Sermanni to excoriate the Orlando Pride and N.C. Courage.
“It’s outrageous,” Sermanni told ESPN. “It is completely disrespectful.”
The women’s soccer portion of the Olympics kicks off on July 21, with New Zealand facing Australia in Tokyo in Group G action. While most Olympic footballers have already left their clubs to prepare for the Games, the Football Ferns’ two best defenders have been denied their release.
Sermanni, a former USWNT, Australia and Orlando Pride coach, was left flummoxed by the decision of the NWSL clubs. The Pride allowed Marta and Courage allowed Debinha to join up with the Brazil national team before this weekend, but denied Riley and Erceg, respectively.
“These athletes are all going to the same major tournament and those clubs have released every single Olympic athlete except for the New Zealanders,” Sermanni continued to ESPN. “It’s unprofessional, unethical and shows a complete lack of respect for the players and New Zealand football. In fact, it reeks of discrimination.
“We asked back in May if we could have our players available by this weekend and were told that these two clubs would not be releasing them. Then I see pictures of the two Brazilian players from the same clubs, on their way to Tokyo, and it makes my blood boil.”
This certainly sounds fishy, especially considering New Zealand is in Group G with the U.S. The USWNT and its full complement of players left for Japan on Wednesday after playing two send-off friendlies against Mexico. Riley played the full 90 minutes in Orlando’s 1-1 draw with Racing Louisville on Friday night; Erceg’s Courage play at Washington Spirit on Saturday evening.
One hopes this is the result of miscommunication and not discrimination. Though the Courage did not respond to ESPN’s request for comment, a Pride spokesperson did.
“The Orlando Pride is proud of each of its players, especially those who represent their national teams at the highest level, and fully respects the importance and honor of competing in the Olympic games,” the Pride spokesperson told ESPN. “The release date of each player is evaluated on an individual basis, factoring the respective national team’s request, the FIFA required release date, the decisions made by other teams in the National Women’s Soccer League as well as the input of the player. In the specific case of Ali Riley, it was the Club’s understanding that New Zealand internationals would remain with their club teams to compete in Week 8. Therefore the decision was made to release Ali on July 10, prior to the FIFA required release date of July 12. Claims of discrimination in this matter are simply unfounded.”
That statement won’t appease Sermanni, who will have to adapt without two of his most-experienced players. Erceg and Riley are two of New Zealand’s most-capped players of all time, trailing only Ria Percival of Tottenham. The Football Ferns’ lone warm-up match for the Olympics is a friendly against Team Great Britain on Wednesday.
“Marta and Debinha may be important to the Brazil team, but Ali and Abby are crucial to the New Zealand team and this suggests that North Carolina Courage and Orlando Pride are dismissing New Zealand football as unimportant as opposed to Brazil being of more importance,” Sermanni said. “Ali and Abby are both coming from the East Coast of America, the flight will be around 16 hours and then when they arrive, they need to adapt to a 13-hour time difference. We have just this one match to have the players on the park together before the start of the Olympics and this is a cohort that hasn’t been able to meet up in 16 months. The rest of the Olympians at those clubs play for national teams that have had the luxury of being able to play games in the FIFA windows over the past year but they couldn’t give my players one week’s grace. Just one game — it’s ludicrous.
“It’s unfair that the players have not been treated equitably and it's a poor reflection on where the ethics and the professionalism of the club are at. It’s not what I expect from an organization like Orlando City.”
It’s hard to argue with Sermanni on this; the optics are really bad for the NWSL.
After facing Australia, New Zealand plays the USWNT on July 24 in Saitama and Sweden on July 27 in Rifu. The top two finishers in each group — plus the two best third-place teams — advance to the quarterfinals of the Olympics. The Football Ferns failed to escape the group stage at the 2016 Olympics, losing 2-0 to the U.S. in the group stage.
Germany is the defending Olympic champion but did not qualify. UEFA doesn’t care enough about women’s soccer to have an actual qualifying tournament and instead uses the top finishers at the Women’s World Cup, which makes little sense considering Great Britain gets four shots to qualify based on the four FIFA national teams that make up Team Great Britain.