New Zealand’s Football Ferns went within a few minutes of pulling off an upset win against Australia’s Matildas but ended the first of their two-game series with a heartbreaking 2-1 loss.
As the game entered its fourth minute of added time, the Kiwis led 1-0 and seemed headed for their first win against Australia since a Wendy Sharpe double gave New Zealand their last victory in 1994.
But it was not to be.
After defending relentlessly for the entire game, the New Zealand legs were tiring, and Australia won the international friendly with goals from Emily van Egmond (94th minute) and Sam Kerr (96th minute).
Main photo: The pain of defeat … Ferns striker Hannah Wilkinson.
Despite the loss, head coach Jitka Klimková will be pleased her squad showed more of the mental toughness she’s been calling for since February’s SheBelieves Cup tournament in the United States.
Right from the start, the Ferns worked doggedly and refused to be intimidated by an Australian side that had 70% possession and the equivalent of a goal attempt every three minutes.
The New Zealanders took an unlikely lead, against the run of play, in the 32nd minute when Anna Green broke clear on the left and hooked a swirling cross into the top far corner of the net.
It wasn’t clear whether it was a cross-gone-wrong or an artfully-placed chip over the head of ‘keeper Lydia Williams but 31-year-old Green later said: “I’m taking that one for sure.”
Video replay: Green’s wonder goal for New Zealand
New Zealand lost midfielder Ria Percival to a first half injury, raising concerns that the Tottenham Hotspur star will miss Tuesday’s second international, to be played in Canberra (9.45pm NZT).
By half-time, the Australians’ statistical superiority was clear. But the scoreboard showed New Zealand were leading 1-0.
Their lead was due in no small part to some outstanding saves by Christchurch-born goalkeeper Victoria Esson and Melbourne Victory defender Claudia Bunge who was prepared to throw her body in the way of a wave of advancing Australians.
In the second spell, the New Zealanders seemed to grow in confidence.
The Australians, egged on by a supportive Townsville crowd, kept pushing forward while a concerned Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson chewed his fingernails to the stump.
With victory in sight, the game went into added time.
First, van Egmond rifled home a shot from 16 metres. Then, when New Zealand failed to scramble away a corner, Kerr was first to react and headed home the winner.
For coach Klimková, her eighth game in charge deserved a better outcome.
However the pain of losing in this fashion will no doubt spur the Ferns to go again with courage — and mental toughness — on Tuesday.