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Mixed Feelings

Women’s football in New Zealand is undoubtedly in a period of flux. Everyone involved in it is currently working towards any and all measures aimed at developing and improving the women’s game in this country. From first kicks to the Ferns, changes are afoot. It is a fascinating time to be a female footballer.

The seven football federations are key to the implementation of all of this change. Recently, the WaiBOP federation has begun to alter the way they deliver girls football. Essentially, as it was told to me by their CEO Mark Christie, the federation has been encouraging their member clubs to enter girls only teams in girls only leagues since 2015. This season that push has increased. It comes amongst other strategies such as girls only holiday and development programmes.

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WaiBOP outlining their changes

A few weeks ago, In The Back of the Net was contacted by the family of a young player in the WaiBOP region, Anamaya Taylor. We were also sent a letter that Anamaya, who is 10 years old, had penned. In it, she expressed her desire to play in a mixed team and her sadness that she felt she was not able to because of the federation’s new measures.

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I wish to state now that this article will not try to answer the questions this issue poses. Instead I want to present all of the perspectives I have heard, and my own. The reason Enzo asked me to write this was because not too long ago I was in Anamaya’s position. Therefore, I will simply attempt to present all sides of this debate in the fairest way that I can.

That leads me to the first perspective-that of Anamaya and her family. Having spoken to them, and read the letter above, it is clear that they feel frustrated at what they feel is an unfair measure. Anamaya has always played in mixed teams and wants to play in one again in her new home of Tauranga. When the family were told she would be encouraged to play in a girl’s only team they asked if Anamaya could instead play mixed football. They were told that this would require special dispensation.

To Anamaya and her family, this communicated the idea that a girl would require either special permission or exceptional talents to be considered equal to the boys. Immediately I could see their argument. One has to consider this issue within its context, both Anamaya’s personal context and the context of what women’s football has been until very recently in New Zealand-that is, in two words, severely underappreciated.

Anamaya, at her school, had felt she had to prove herself to be respected by the boys in a playground game and that is an experience that I easily relate to. Growing up as a girl who loved football, my team mates and I were constantly having to show that we could be good enough. At every turn, we had to prove that we could “play like a boy” in an environment that used “like a girl” as an insult. As Anamaya’s mum put it, in some ways being forced to play in a girls-only team served to reinforce the message that, at the age of 10, Anamaya had been continually exposed to: you’re not good enough.

How, then, has WaiBOP come to this decision? I took that question to WaiBOP and was very fortunate in the thorough and open way the federation responded. Mark Christie outlined WaiBOP’s philosophy for developing female football in an email. In it, he said that it came from WaiBOP’s responsibility to support New Zealand Football’s goals. These were to:

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 Essentially, WaiBOP wishes to create environments for girls where they are better supported and feel increasingly able to develop and learn. To do that, WaiBOP are moving to a structure with more focus on girls-only teams and pathways. I see many truths in WaiBOP’s rationale.

I have a twin brother and naturally started my playing days alongside him as one of a handful of girls in a mixed team. As I grew up the number of girls dwindled. As much as I still loved those years, I had to deal with a few things.

Any of my coaches who happen to be reading this will tell you I am best suited as an attacking player, on the wing, where I can run. Yet when I was 11 years old my now First XI coach was the first person to put me on the wing. Before that I had uniquely played defence where the only ball I saw was that I got off the other team and the only thing I did with it was kick it out, as instructed. No one ever showed me I could do anything different. I didn’t believe I was fast or that I could ever be involved in scoring a goal. Years of being relegated to the backline took all of my self-belief before I even knew I had it.

The thing is, my experience was a relatively good one. My teammates were not as exclusive as they could have been. Many girls had it far worse. I’ve coached enough 7th grade matches to see little girls get ignored until they run the entire field and put the ball in the net themselves-then go back to getting ignored. It’s a key reason why girls leave the game.

Even so, when I was asked to play in a new girls-only team I was far from impressed. My mum had to convince me to do it to help the head of football out. I told her that it wouldn’t be fun and we’d get smashed. We did get smashed, a bit, but it was more than just fun. I got to play where I wanted to and how I wanted to. Crucially, I felt no fear. For the first time, the game I enjoyed became a game I loved. The most important step in my development as a footballer was that first season in the girls only league.

Helena Wiseman

So can I see the merit in WaiBOP’s decision? Absolutely.

Are there issues? Of course.

One thing that sprung out to me was that all of this comes just as NZF announced that the New Zealand based Ferns players would compete in a boys league to boost their development. Clearly there are contradictory messages here, which is more of a problem when you consider that the Ferns are these young girls’ key role models.

I can also see what Anamaya means in her belief that it isn’t fair. I am not sure that I agree that Anamaya should have to get dispensation at the age of 10 when the physical disparity is non-existent. Moreover, the truly sad part of the letter is the end, and we cannot ignore that when considering this issue. Anamaya says that she may give up football altogether. Regardless of your perspective, that is one thing that all of us want to avoid. We desperately need to encourage girls to play football, and to stay involved.

Having said all of that, the clearest point I can make is that this issue is complex. As I said, I won’t pick sides. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Regardless of what girls-only football helped me to achieve, I am not every one. Ultimately, a recurring issue for women in any sphere is that of choice, or the lack of it. I know girls for whom mixed football was their best option, and others who needed to move to girls’ teams. Neither of those choices can be wrong. Each player, as NZF would agree, brings unique needs on and off the pitch. As such, every footballer should be able to choose the pathway that best aids their development. That should happen regardless of gender.

Categories: Youth Football

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Helena Wiseman

A youth grade footballer and lover of the game since the age of 4. Living and playing for club and school in Auckland and loving every second on the pitch (apart from the end of a losing match).

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