New Zealand relishing underdog role

Write off New Zealand at your peril at this summer's FIFA Women's World Cup. Being the tournament underdogs suits midfielder Ali Riley just fine.

The Football Ferns look to make a splash at Women's World Cup

Ali Riley, right, tried out and earned a spot on New Zealand's under-20 team before eventually graduating to the senior side. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Write off New Zealand at your peril at this summer's FIFA Women's World Cup.

True, the Football Ferns don't have the best tournament pedigree. New Zealand's previous World Cup campaigns were unmitigated disasters, losing all six of their games by a combined score of 20-1.

And conventional wisdom suggests New Zealand will bow out in the first round again this year, even though the draw was somewhat favourable to them — they will play in Group B with Mexico, Japan and England.

But being the tournament underdogs suits New Zealand just fine, according to midfielder Ali Riley.

"I think it is just more motivation to do well and to surprise people," Riley told CBC Sports. "My teammates from other countries are still saying it's a hard group for us but I think that is an incentive to — to shock people and to knock off Japan and England.

"I think this is a really good opportunity for us. No matter who we're playing, we're always going to be the underdog. So we're really fired up."

The Football Ferns hope to use the relative success of their male counterparts, the All Whites, at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as a source of inspiration, as well as helping to further elevate the sport in New Zealand's sporting conscience.

The island country in the South Pacific boasts the All Blacks, one of the best rugby sides in the world, and a formidable cricket team known as the Black Caps, but soccer hasn't exactly won a spot in the hearts of Kiwis.

The All Whites lost all three games when they made their World Cup debut in 1982, but stunned many critics last year when they held powerhouse Italy to a 1-1 stalemate and narrowly missed out on qualifying for the knockout stage after going undefeated (three draws) in the first round.

"Rugby is kind of the end all and be all [in New Zealand] and I think [the All Whites] all became celebrities in some sense. It was just a huge, huge push in the right direction for soccer," Riley said.

"Now people celebrate other athletes and realize that these men are professionals and they're playing in other countries and are part of this great, this great sport. I think that also led into the excitement surrounding the Women's World Cup, hoping and believing that we can achieve the same thing."

Riley played the game during her childhood growing up in Los Angeles. Her father was born in New Zealand, so when she was in high school, she looked into the possibility of playing for her adoptive country and discovered New Zealand was in the process of developing its youth program.

She tried out and earned a spot on New Zealand's under-20 team, eventually graduating to the senior side and playing for the Football Ferns at the 2007 Women's World Cup and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

As a foreign-born player, Riley, 23, feels a sense of obligation to act as an ambassador for the sport in New Zealand.

"A huge part of my role as a member of the Football Ferns is to be a pioneer for women's soccer… to be pushing women's soccer in New Zealand and showing that it's a beautiful sport, a beautiful game that people should follow," Riley explained.

For Riley, success in Germany won't be measured solely by victories, but by how much she can inspire  a new generation of girls in New Zealand to take up the game, which is vital to the future health of the country's national team. 

"The team is so focused on not only performing well but to get people to jump on board, to get little girls to follow us," said Riley, who plays professionally in the U.S. with the Western New York Flash.

 "The fact is we don't have the same talent pool [as other nations]. We don't have the same numbers to choose from. So, if I can be part of a movement so that the next generation can be in that top ten, can compete against Germany, Sweden or Canada, then I will have achieved my goal."