Saturday 06 August 2016, 13:38

Duncan's desire shining through

It has never been difficult to identify Katie Duncan out on the field of play. The New Zealander has always stood out for her excellent reading of the game and her determination to fight for every last ball, not to mention her fine crop of blond hair. And it was business as usual for the midfielder in New Zealand’s opening match of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016 against USA, with one small exception. For although Duncan put in a characteristically eye-catching and energetic performance – ultimately in vain, as the Football Ferns succumbed to a 2-0 defeat – on this occasion she also stood out because of a radical new haircut.

“Yeah it’s a bit shorter than normal, isn’t it?” said Duncan with a smile to “And it’s already grown loads! It was nearly a month ago that I shaved it all off. At the very least I can run quicker with it like this,” she continued, running her hand through what little hair remains. “It still took a little bit of getting used to, but I have no regrets. It’s really starting to feel normal now.” But make no mistake, it was not for purely aesthetic reasons that New Zealand’s No4 chose to so dramatically change her hairstyle. As befits her personality, the real reason was more altruistic. “Liberating yourself from your fears, on and off the pitch. That’s the meaning behind it. I want to encourage people to give their all in whatever it is they wish to do, deep down inside. It’s all about letting go, moving forwards free from the fear of making mistakes,” she explained. Her message came accompanied by an appeal for donations to the True Colours Children’s Health Trust, a Waikato-based charity that comes to the aid of sick children and their families.

Duncan’s generosity is also evident every time she sets foot on the pitch. Against the Americans, she never gave Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan et al a moment’s rest, even picking up an injury for her troubles. “I took a knock to my hip. It was very painful, but the injury is gradually improving and I hope to be fit in time for the Colombia match,” she said, before reflecting on her own performance against USA. “I’m pleased with myself, I had a good game. The problem is that, at the Olympics, a good game isn’t enough. You need to have a great game.”

Which serves as a neat summary of the Kiwis’ opening match of the tournament. There was certainly no shame to be had in coming up short against the team that currently holds top spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking, but New Zealand will have to up their game if they wish to progress further in the competition. “We were solid at the back. Tactically we played well, and we were well organised. But looking back, we perhaps should have been a bit more attacking, should have tried to create more going forward to upset their rhythm. But that match is behind us now - it’s on to the next one!”

Colombia are now lying in wait for New Zealand, in what is shaping up to be a crucial match on 6 August in Belo Horizonte. Both teams opened the tournament with a defeat, leaving their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals on a knife’s edge. But Duncan clearly sees no cause for undue concern. “No, we’re not afraid of them, but we do respect them,” she underlined. “We can’t underestimate their quality. Technically, they’re very good. They can be very dangerous on the counter-attack. But let’s just focus on ourselves! Come on, let’s give it our best shot and let’s win!”

United as oneThis message is coming from the voice of experience. Katie Duncan has represented her country at almost every major international tournament in recent years. At 28 years of age, and with 105 caps to her name, she is one of the most experienced players in the squad assembled by coach Tony Readings. Although, if Duncan is to be believed, a better word for it would be “group”. “That’s our strength. We may not be the best technically, but we know how to play together, how to rally around each other on and off the pitch. We’re united as one, which is a powerful weapon that means we can take on the very best.”

New Zealand are taking part in their third successive Olympic Women’s Football Tournament, following their appearances at Beijing 2008 and London 2012. Although they ultimately failed to advance from the group stage in China eight years ago, the Football Ferns pulled off something of a coup by drawing with a Japanese team that had been crowned world champions three years previously. It was a particularly significant result for them as, in drawing, they claimed their very first point at the finals of a major international tournament. Four years down the line, New Zealand took another important step forward, with a win over Cameroon enabling them to reach the second round of the tournament – both firsts for the country at an international women’s football competition – before they were ultimately knocked out by USA, who eventually went on to claim the gold medal.

“Nowadays, there are no limits. We’re playing for the gold medal, nothing else. We may have lost against USA, but we’re going to bounce back. We’ve still got faith, we believe in ourselves, and we know that together we can reach the stars. I have confidence in this group”, concluded Duncan. Her team may not have got off to the ideal start, but she is clearly not tearing her hair out over it yet.