Thursday 17 February 2022, 03:00

Klimkova: My New Zealand will play to win

  • Jitka Klimkova took charge of New Zealand’s women’s national team in September

  • She’s out to ensure that the Football Ferns thrive, and entertain, as World Cup co-hosts

  • Klimkova’s side face USA, Iceland and her home country, Czech Republic, in the upcoming SheBelieves Cup

Jitka Klimkova has not been alone in working remotely during the pandemic. But for the New Zealand coach, that remoteness has not merely entailed staying away from the office, but staying out of the country.

Stringent COVID rules and strict border controls have meant that Klimkova has yet to set foot in the Land of the Long White Cloud since being appointed in September of last year. But the recent loosening of those restrictions, and a flexible approach to the initial challenges she faced, have left the Czech coach with plenty to enthuse about.

“There’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel now in terms of getting into New Zealand,” said Klimkova, who has been based mainly in her native Czech Republic – 11,000 miles away. “I definitely can't wait to be in the country, get to the office and actually meet people face-to-face rather than just having so many Zoom calls. But one thing I’ve learned during this pandemic is to be adaptable, focus on controlling what I control and be ready to change my plans.

“The restrictions have definitely made things quite unpredictable because, as well as me not being able to get into New Zealand, it’s also been very tough to get people out. When we went to play Canada last year, there were actually no people from New Zealand there at all, so we had to put together a staff with people we trusted.

“Fortunately it went really well with those games, and also when we went to Korea (for subsequent friendlies in November). I’m so glad we accepted the situation as it was and took the risk of playing those matches, because otherwise we would be starting our preparations now and would have missed out on what those games taught us.”

Jitka Klimková, New Zealand women's coach, smiles during training.

Attacking intent

The key lesson to emerge in Canada and Korea was around the change of style Klimkova is implementing. The 47-year-old, who has coached the national youth teams of USA, New Zealand and Czech Republic, and won an A-League title with Canberra United, has stated her intention to make the Football Ferns more bold and adventurous in their outlook.

But moving on from a long-held focus on being sturdy and tough to beat was never likely to happen overnight.

"It’s changing the mindset and making the players understand that, as much as possible, we want to keep the ball and control the play,” she explained. “We’re not naïve and we know that against some opposition that we’ll need to be ready to have spells out of possession and be ready to counter-attack and be fast in transition.

"We also need to be really compact in defence and strong in one-v-ones. But the players are hungry for this and really want to play on the front foot, and I think they’re ready to make a success of it.

"It still needs some work of course. In our first game against Canada that the players were all excited and ready for this new approach, but when we started losing I could see them going back to playing on the back foot again. The way we wanted to play just disappeared. But we needed that lesson, and by the very next game (against the same opponents) you could see it was already completely different – and the result (a narrow 1-0 defeat, having lost 5-1 the game before) reflected that.

"It was good for the players to see what happens when they play not to lose, and then the difference when they play to win. They need to see and believe that, by playing to win, it gives us a better chance in these matches. That might take a while, but I’m a very patient coach and I promise you this: I won’t give up. Whoever we are up against, New Zealand will be a team that plays to win."

Winning hasn’t, in truth, been a familiar feeling for the Ferns in recent years, and a fine 2-0 victory over Korea Republic – runners-up at the recent AFC Women’s Asian Cup – in their most recent match achieved more than simply ending an eight-match losing run. “That was a reward for the players – for the way they’ve bought in and committed to the way we want to play,” said Klimkova.

Those same players, and their coach’s new tactical approach, will face three formidable challenges over the next week as New Zealand take part in the SheBelieves Cup. There is also plenty of personal significance for Klimkova in a section in which the Kiwis have been pitted against Czech Republic, USA and Iceland.

“I have a lot of close connections in the States and, of course, playing against Czech Republic is going to be really special for me,” she said. “It’s not just my country but a team that I played for and coached, so it will be wonderful to face them with New Zealand in such a prestigious tournament. We’re so happy to be involved and it’s the perfect kind of test for us as we prepare for the World Cup.”

New Zealand's SheBelieves fixtures

  • vs Iceland (18 February)

  • vs USA (20 February)

  • vs Czech Republic (23 February)

Jitka Klimková, New Zealand women's coach, speaks during training.

Looking to 2023 – and beyond

Next year’s global finals, which will be co-hosted with Australia, are never far from Kiwi minds. But for all the exciting and wide-ranging opportunities that come with a home World Cup, there is pressure too for the team – and coach – carrying a nation’s hopes. John Herdman described it as “oppressive” when Canada hosted the tournament in 2015, and Klimkova knows the importance of ensuring her players don’t feel similarly burdened.

“We are working hard on planning the whole cycle to the World Cup and one of the key aspects we’re focusing on is the pressure of being the home team,” she said. “We’re discussing how we can deal with it in a positive way because that pressure can be a privilege, but we know it also has the potential to destroy all the good work we’re doing in the build-up. We need to make sure that playing at home inspires and motivates the players so that they can go out there and do what’s needed to qualify from our group.”

If they are to progress, New Zealand will of course need to do something that they haven’t managed in five previous Women’s World Cups: win a match. But while ending that long wait is an obsession among the players, the nation’s football authorities – while optimistic about the Ferns’ prospects – are looking beyond 2023.

That long-term vision and commitment was reflected in the duration of Klimkova’s contact, with the coach herself delighted by the message that her six-year deal conveyed.

"It means a lot to me,” she said. “I think it’s great that New Zealand Football is thinking long-term, and we’re focusing a lot right now on young players who will hopefully go with us on that journey. We’re still just at the start, but we want to really integrate the senior Ferns with the youth teams and start planning beyond this year and even beyond 2023.

"I really see huge potential for women’s football in New Zealand and I’m so happy that I got this opportunity. It’s a huge challenge and a huge responsibility, of course, given that we’re World Cup co-hosts. But the biggest motivation for me was the potential that I saw working with the players in 2013 and 2014 (as U-17 women’s national coach), and from watching the Ferns.

"I felt then, and I feel now, that New Zealand can achieve a lot. It’s my privilege to be a part of helping them do that.”

Images courtesy of Photosport