No games, shock illnesses and late arrivals: New Zealand ready to fight despite horror Olympic lead-in

Imagine trying to prepare a team to face the best in the world at an international football tournament, having played just one competitive match together in the preceding 498 days.

It's not an ideal situation at any level of the game, but that is precisely the one in which the New Zealand women's national team find themselves -- playing just one friendly match in 16 months ahead of their opening match at the Olympic Games against Australia on Wednesday.

Prior to the closed-doors friendly against Great Britain at the Todoriki Stadium in Tokyo last week, the Football Ferns' last collective outing -- competitive or otherwise -- was at the Algarve Cup on March 10, 2020.

New Zealand's third-place playoff at that tournament was in fact the last match played there.

Germany were declared winners after the final was cancelled when Italy withdrew due to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic in their home country -- in hindsight, it was an ominous precursor to a developing global crisis.

The Ferns finished fourth after a 2-1 loss to Norway and, while head coach Tom Sermanni recalls the match with perfect clarity, he also remembers having no inkling at that point that it would be their last time together for well over a year.

Instead of planning a series of camps and international friendlies for the lead-in to Tokyo, Sermanni spent the rest of the year stranded in Australia as the coronavirus spread around the world slamming borders shut. He travelled around the country where possible, to watch the four New Zealand players plying their trade in the W-League, but had to rely on television broadcasts, match streaming and written reports to keep tabs on the balance of a squad scattered around seven different countries on three separate continents.

While 17 members of that side who participated in the 2020 Algarve Cup will pull on a New Zealand shirt once more in Tokyo this month, health issues have resulted in the absence of two important names from the team sheet.

Rebekah Stott was planning to appear in her third Olympic campaign for the Ferns in Japan before being diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin's Lymphoma in February 2021.

On the day her teammates run out on the pitch in Tokyo to face Australia in their opening Group G match, Stott will be in Melbourne awaiting the results of a PET Scan which will tell her if she is in complete remission.

The popular defender, who made a heart-warming return to the football pitch with NPLW side Bulleen Lions in Melbourne last week, is an important part of the Ferns' culture and she has written in her blog that her absence from the team is tough to take even though she knows her health is the priority at this time.

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"I am fortunate enough to have represented my country at two Olympic Games already, but it doesn't make the heartbreak of missing out this year, in one of my favourite countries, any easier," Stott wrote.

The 28-year-old might have played for Australia at under-17 and under-20 level, but her loyalties are very much with her country of birth.

"Having represented both New Zealand and Australia, it's always a special game for me, and although I hope my Aussie friends have great games, I hope for nothing but Kiwi success," she wrote.

Forward Rosie White, who has 100 international caps herself, will also be cheering her team on from home after she was sidelined with chronic illness.

"I am heartbroken not to be able to compete with this incredible team in Tokyo," White announced on Instagram, expressing her disappointment.

"Unfortunately, I've had a big health set back and have to slow down for the time being.

"Life is mysterious and unpredictable but I couldn't be more grateful for all the support I have received.

"I'm so proud of all the women named in this squad and I can't wait to be their biggest supporter."

While the combined experience of Stott and White will be hugely missed on the park, the Ferns have said they are using their teammates' fighting spirit as inspiration.

"We're flipping it around and using it as something to go into this tournament firing with, to really push us on in the tournament," Ria Percival told Goal.

Percival will be the most experienced player in the Ferns side in Tokyo, with the Tottenham Hotspur defender chalking up 152 national team appearances with her last outing.

Alongside veterans Ali Riley, Abby Erceg and Iceland-based CJ Bott, Percival will make up a backline charged with repelling the forays of some of the best strikers in the world.

Ferns captain Riley, who plays for Orlando Pride in the NWSL and Erceg from North Carolina Courage were the last two players into camp last week after their clubs kept them in the States for the Round 8 of the NWSL, drawing the ire of their national team coach.

While Sermanni reiterated that the reason for his outrage was solely based on what he termed the "unprofessional and discriminatory behaviour" of the two clubs in releasing their Brazilian players early and not extending the same courtesy to the New Zealanders, he was understandably relieved when Riley and Erceg -- who are halfway through an NWSL season -- arrived match fit.

"It was the unfair treatment from the two clubs that was my only complaint," Sermanni told ESPN.

"However, the fact they [Riley and Erceg] have been playing, is so important. We have only five outfield players who have had competitive football in the past two months and they are at a different level of readiness compared to the other 14 outfield players we have."

Striker Hannah Wilkinson is one of those who has had a six-week break away from regular football, after completing her club season with MSV Duisburg in the Frauen Bundesliga at the beginning of June, travelling back to New Zealand and then completing the required 14 days of quarantine.

The scorer of New Zealand's last goal in international competition, 29 year-old Wilkinson will lead the attack, supported by the likes of Betsy Hassett, Katie Bowen and Olivia Chance.

Although the Ferns' strike-force failed to find the back of the net and the team conceded three goals in their one and only warm-up match, it doesn't overly concern Sermanni.

"The performance, in regards to where we were at in relation to Team GB is what I expected," he said. "Many of their side play together in the top clubs in Europe and have played together in the last 12 months.

"I think the value for us is that we got 90 minutes together for the first time in 16 months.

"I said before the game that the result was not critical. The match gave us the opportunity to assess what we need to do going into the tournament, it gives both the staff and players a focus now on what we need to correct in a very short and unusually intensive period of time."

With an ominous task ahead, Sermanni is realistic about the disparity in preparations between the New Zealanders and their Group G rivals Australia, Sweden and the United States.

"The USWNT has played 15 games this year. We've only played that many matches in the last two-and-a-half-years -- and that included a World Cup year. Even Australia has managed to stay together since the June window," he said.

"I think preparation time will be the biggest difference, it magnifies the gulf now that the game is more professional but you go into the tournament with the hand you're dealt and then you go in with the best preparation you can in the circumstances, to get the best results."

The Tokyo Olympics will be Sermanni's last tournament in charge of New Zealand with the Scot stepping down after its conclusion. But his focus until then is solely on what he can control and, despite the disadvantages faced in the lead-in, he believes no one should be writing the Ferns off just yet.

"For New Zealand, we need to get our tactics, preparation and selection spot on," he said.

"Obviously everyone has to turn up on the day but we feel if we can get those three things right, then we always have a chance and that's what we are looking to do in this tournament."