By Ella Reilly
Football in New Zealand has come a long way in the thirteen or fourteen years since I first fell in love with the sport. I think it’s probably fair to say that I’m writing this as someone who has grown up as football in New Zealand has had its latest growth spurt. Since the 2002 Men’s World Cup, football has really blossomed in the public consciousness after the lull that followed the All Whites’ exploits in 1982.
But growing up means you start to see discrepancies, inconsistencies, and injustices in the world – and football is no different. And the absence of a professional women’s football team in this country, to my mind, is one of those discrepancies.
We need a professional women’s football team in this country. Sooner rather than later.
There’s been talk on the Wellington Phoenix forums about a women’s team that may be established in conjunction with the Phoenix, to play in the Westfield W-League in the next year or two. It was sparked by a blink-and-you-miss-it reference in a recent end of season round up article.
Frankly, the timing for a professional women’s team in New Zealand couldn’t be better.
The Ferns are doing outstandingly well at present. They’re currently ranked 17th in FIFA’s world rankings; far outstripping the men’s team (144th). Ferns captain Abby Erceg is New Zealand’s first footballer, male or female, to reach 100 caps for her country. The second and third players to reach this milestone were fellow Ferns Ria Percival and Katie Duncan. These three players are New Zealand football’s only centurions.
We’ve got so much potential bubbling in the New Zealand women’s football whanau, it makes sense to increase the opportunities for players coming through. Establishing a professional women’s team in this country will further broaden and deepen the landscape of New Zealand football.
Of course going overseas benefits players, and in no way am I suggesting that we should be discouraging our footballers from plying their trade beyond these shores. But it’s not necessarily an option for everyone, and we do New Zealand sport a great disservice if we shrug our shoulders and leave that as the only viable option for our talented players looking to take the next step in their careers.
The interest in women’s football at the highest level is absolutely there in our footballing communities. It makes sense for any talks about bringing professional women’s football to New Zealand to become more meaningful now. Why not capitalise on this heightened interest in the women’s game and get the process underway for a New Zealand-based W-League team?
We also need to be conscious of the potential long-term effects of not turning the women’s game professional in this country. We risk losing talented athletes to other codes – because the opportunities for progression and career development are greater in other codes. By establishing a professional team in New Zealand, we are saying to our girls, when they are deciding which sporting code is for them, that there is a feasible future for them in football, in this country.
This is of particular importance for our younger players.
You want someone who you can relate to, who you can see yourself as, and one day emulating. You want to know that there’s a pathway that you yourself might be walking down one day. When I was a kid, David Beckham was my absolute hero, and I’d have loved to have been like him. But looking back, it would have been great if there was a female equivalent for me to look up to as well – or a more visible one at least.
I was recently struck by an article about women working in what are typically seen as men-only worlds – including football. Anna Kessel, a leading sports journalist for The Guardian in the UK, talks about the difference she saw in her two-year-old daughter’s response to football when it involved women: “My daughter’s never been that interested and has talked about how Daddy [who, like Anna, is also a football journalist] likes football.” However, seeing the women’s European Championships on TV elicited a change in the toddler’s interest in the sport. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her sit and stare at the TV at these women playing football. And I thought, if you’re two years old and that makes a difference…”
In no way is any of this to the detriment of the men’s teams or the men’s games. And this certainly isn’t to suggest that no more work needs to be done with the men’s game in New Zealand. But it’s time that women’s football – and, more widely, women’s sport – was given greater attention in the public eye and realm of professionalism. The establishment of a professional women’s team should result in greater consideration, awareness and respect for our female footballers amongst the general populous.
We have the semi-professional ANZ Championship for netball, which garners a decent amount of news coverage and general interest. Because of this, in part, our netballers are respected as the top athletes they are, and someone like me who knows very little about netball at least knows the names of the top players. I’m not sure we can say the same thing about our Football Ferns – yet.
And this is the only example of women’s sport in this country that I can think of that has this sort of presence in New Zealand’s sporting consciousness. Overall, New Zealand has a way to go before women’s sport can be said to be equally respected as men’s sport – but that’s another blog post altogether (hint hint, Enzo?).
We’ve had professional men’s football in this country for the last decade, and it’s beginning to flourish. The continued professionalism of the women’s game will serve to benefit all of lovers of football in this country, irrespective of gender.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in years to come, we here in New Zealand have footballers whose earliest memories of their love of the game were sparked from having seen today’s Football Ferns, and other top women footballers, playing the game professionally in this country?
[Ella Reilly is a long suffering Nottingham Forest and England supporter, and also a great stalwart of her local club – Waiheke United AFC]
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/