The New Zealand women’s squad that will travel to Rio is jam-packed with experience but there is no lack of youthful exuberance either with two up-and-comers, Meikayla Moore and Jasmine Pereira, set to make their Olympic Games debuts.
The talented pair have been named in the 18-strong line-up for Brazil by coach Tony Readings and received confirmation of their place on the plane during yesterday’s announcement at Avondale College, where four of the players received their education.
Pereira is the west Auckland school’s most recent graduate to have played for her country – the others in the Olympic squad are Kirsty Yallop, Betsy Hassett and Amber Hearn – and says it was a special moment to officially become an Olympian at the same place where her footballing journey began.
“It was only two years ago that I came to school here and it was a massive thing for me to be in front of some of the students I was at school with and others who might be aspiring to be Olympians themselves,” the 19-year-old says.
“To see teachers who knew me back then and have seen how much I’ve grown as a person and a player since then was a good feeling.”
Avondale College had a key role to play in Pereira’s transformation from sports-mad kid to fully-fledged international footballer. The youngest of four children in a sporting family, she was also the only girl and was regularly on the receiving end as her older brothers tried out their latest wrestling moves.
After excelling in a range of sports at primary school, she had decided to focus on netball when starting at Avondale but instead signed up to play football, mainly as the queue to join was shorter.
It proved to be a fateful decision and has more than paid off with the speedy striker now set to display her skills at the biggest sporting event on the planet.
“Being only 19, it’s massive for me and is so hard to believe,” she says.
“To think that I’m an Olympian now is insane – I would never have thought I would be in this position three years ago. To follow in the footsteps of a lot of legends of New Zealand sport is really exciting,” she adds.
“But I’m trying not to think about it too much as I need to be more focused on how I’m going to play and achieving the team’s goals.”
Just one year older, Pereira’s fellow fresh-faced team mate Moore blew out the candles on her 20th birthday cake only last month, when the team was in the midst of a two-match tour of Australia.
Like Pereira, she is still coming to terms with becoming an Olympian and, just hours after being named in the squad, struggles to put the feeling into words.
“It’s crazy, I’ve had this dream ever since I was four-years-old and started playing football as a midget,” says the defender, who hails from Christchurch but is now based in Auckland.
“Now that it has happened, I couldn’t be more grateful to be given the opportunity to represent my country at an Olympic Games in the sport that I love. I’ve always aspired to be like people such as Valerie Adams and Lisa Carrington so it will be surreal to be alongside them – I’m speechless really.”
Moore and Pereira may be heading into the unknown themselves but do not have to look far for advice and guidance from those who have already experienced the buzz of an Olympics campaign.
Seven players in the squad – captain Abby Erceg, Anna Green, Amber Hearn, Ria Percival, Kirsty Yallop, Katie Duncan and Ali Riley – will travel to Brazil for their third Olympic Games while six have played around a century of games or more for New Zealand.
With 126 appearances to her name, Erceg is the country’s most-capped international of all time – of either gender – and Moore will look to pick up as much as she can from the skipper.
“Abby is also a centre-back so I can learn a lot off her given she has gone to so many World Cups and Olympic Games. You can't really learn any better way.”
There will also be plenty of support from further afield with thousands of Kiwis set to tune into all the action from Rio 2016.
“We love having the support of the country and knowing they back you 100 per cent is huge for us – it all adds to the atmosphere,” Moore says.
New Zealand will face USA, Colombia and France in the group stages of the Olympic Games and will open their campaign against the United States, the world’s number one-ranked side, on August 3 at Belo Horizonte.
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