By Cordwainer Bull
If my own awareness as a moderately enthusiastic football follower is any guide, this week’s Abby Erceg explosion was a Kaikoura moment on our footballing richter scale.
The 27-year-old Football Ferns captain pulled the plug on a career that has seen her play 130 A internationals, pointing the bone at New Zealand Football for its inability to nurture an adequate financial support regime for its top players.
Of course that’s against a backdrop of High Performance Sport NZ slashing its women’s football funding from $800,000 to $500,000 per-year over the next three years after the team were knocked out at the group stage of both the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
A funding shortfall for New Zealand international team programmes is not a novel problem. Remember it’s only a couple of years back that parents were being asked to cough up thousands if their kids were selected to represent their country in age group teams.
But Erceg’s announcement had far greater shock value, if only because there had not been a whiff of a problem on the radar in advance.
A week ago, if you’d asked me for a precis of how things were with our senior women’s team, I probably would have surmised it ws a hard working but exceptionally happy unit, with great team spirit, where they all sang Lorde songs sitting around the camp fire.
Usually with such matters there is an advance rumbling, a few media stories identifying the problem, and then a few more chewing over possible solutions.
In this case it’s been done in reverse. Abby has lobbed the mortar into the tent – and now we’re working backwards to understand the objective situation, to contextualise events and maybe find solutions.
We have a well-performed national team – international ranking 19 – where it appears a number of its constituent members are gasping for support, and a national body which is either not equipped, or not mandated to assist with even little requests like petrol money to get to training.
There are times when it seems like the whole world has run out of money. And yet, it’s barely three months ago that I sat at posh dinner at the Heritage Hotel, pigging out on beetroot, while the New Zealand Football Foundation trousered $500,000 donations from each of Sir Eion Edgar and Mark Stewart.
The Football Foundation was created to acquire and manage funds for New Zealand Football (it manages the $4 million given to NZ Football for qualifying for the 2010 World Cup) and to provide the long-term financial support needed to grow the game in New Zealand. Doling out petrol and food parcels for our top women may be outside the foundation’s remit, but if so, I certainly know what two door’s I’d be knocking on next.
However I would suggest that at the heart of the problem is a disconnect of a different sort.
The Football Ferns high international ranking (and ongoing ambitions) are just not reflected enough in terms of public perception. There is a chasm between achievements of the team and “the excitement factor” that gets the average woman in the street talking about them.
Our women’s football (relative) success story is far too abstract. Even within football clubs I suspect there is a lack of appreciation. We don’t know our women’s team well enough to properly relate to them as a fan base.
The real challenge is better marketing of our women’s team, and improving their profile and sense of importance.
Late last year my club held impromptu discussions with NZ Football about possibly hosting a Football Ferns match in Hamilton. As I understand it, the idea was eventually nixed by coaching personnel, who, perhaps understandably, saw getting everyone to Hamilton as a logistical nightmare, and the match against Thailand was eventually played at Waitakere. In Hamilton such a game would have been “a real thing”, and drawn a big midweek crowd. In Waitakere, less so.
It made me note that it had been more than 25 years since we’d seen a New Zealand women’s team in action in the Waikato. And for that matter, I couldn’t remember a whole lot of games elsewhere. Mind you, I could be wrong
– because the Football Ferns simply weren’t a big enough part of my football spectrum.
And that’s the nub of the issue: football fans like me with only the loosest of connections to our women’s team.
But once that connection has been cemented, all sorts of things would be possible.
Think back to some of our finest hours in the New Zealand men’s international game, and qualifying for the 1982 World Cup finals: At the time, for every week the players were together it cost the World Cup committee $10,000 – quite a lot in those days, and there was no money tree to pluck.
Then, once they forced a qualifying playoff in Singapore, an extra $100,000 had to be raised at very short notice.
There was a public appeal on radio, TV and the press. In John Adshead and Kevin Fallon’s book, New Zealand’s World Cup – The Inside Story – there’s even a photo of Adshead at a “blanket collection” at Avondale College, with a whole pile of dollars scooped together on a blanket where they had been donated by kids at the school.
These were pre-internet times, but some 45 different merchandising ventures were launched, all featuring the 1982 Kiwi football logo . We had T shirts, caps, coffee mugs, coasters, tea towels, scarfs, bags, bumper stickers, even shampoo and soap on a rope.
There was the 45rpm recording of Heading for the Top. Later, there were 40,00 copies of “Road to Spain” printed, with 50 cents from each going into the pot.
These fundraising channels were only possible because fans had made the emotional connection and bought into it. This was their team, so of course they would help. It’s the Kiwi way.
Somehow we need to make that connection now with our women’s team.
Someone also asked on twitter asked this week how many people had ever paid at the gate to see a game of women’s football. The last time I could recall was in October 1991 (NZ v Australia at Muir Park). Do we subconsciously downplay the status of the women’s game if top domestic matches are not monetised?
But back to Erceg. She has been praised by team mates and peers for having the courage to speak out. In retirement might she now also find further courage to help work towards finding some solutions?
Anyway, in the absence of any wider-organised fundraising, I want to do my bit and make a token offer.
I’m auctioning off a pennant from the very first national women’s tournament in Christchurch in 1976.
Proceeds will be forwarded to ITBOTN principal Enzo. In the absence of a more organised initiative, I’m suggesting Enzo then buy the biggest possible jerry can of petrol with the funds and pop along to the next Football Ferns practice and squirt a bit in every player’s car.
This would be a quintessentially Kiwi approach, and would certainly also attract more media eyeballs to the cause. Happy bidding!
[Cordwainer Bull is a former Waikato United and Waikato FC programme columnist. His hobbies include antique typewriters and oneupmanship, while some say beneath his coat there are wings. His favourite player was Anne Smith.]
Categories: Football Ferns
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.