Phill Parker-Pickering, founder and chairman of Aotearoa Football and head coach of Te Ikaroa Wāhine, was a bit taken aback by the resounding success of last month’s Clash of the Cultures series. Two Indigenous Australian teams, Mariya, took on Te Ikaroa Tāne and Te Ikaroa Wāhine. As Enzo reported, Te Ikaroa won both games 3-2 and 5-0 respectively. But there’s more to the series and Aotearoa Football than what went down over two 90-minute blocks on a sweltering January Saturday.
Phill describes Clash of the Cultures as something of an “unchartered space” in football. It’s a space where something more than a couple of football matches take place: it’s also about cultural exchange, empowerment, and seeking a new way to engage people in the beautiful game.
The way Phill describes it, we need “another layer” in the match day experience. Football in New Zealand, as we’re all aware, tends to struggle against its rugby and league counterparts for crowd numbers, atmosphere, and that little sprinkling of something else that ensures the sport’s place in our collective psyche.
Phill realised that this wasn’t quite the case on the day of Clash of the Cultures, however, as the pre-match haka (composed by the players during their training camps) quickly captured the crowd.
“I didn’t expect the crowd would be as engaged as they ended up being. Which was a huge thrill for me. Because all of the crowd was there in that moment, with the players – it was kind of like being at an EPL game, with everyone singing the songs and everyone’s there in the moment.”
“Talking to the leaders of the haka, they were saying they kind of blacked out in the moment [during the pregame haka]; they kind of felt like it was just them right there,” says Phill.
“But like I was trying to explain to them, you had about 300, 400 there with you, not just the person behind you or beside you, you had 400.”
“Maybe this is the missing layer. How can we add another layer of a national pride?”
Something’s missing when it comes to the relationship between Māoridom and football. Despite, for example, current All Whites Captain Winston Reid telling of how his sense of his Māori identity spurred him to commit to the All Whites ahead of the 2010 World Cup (having grown up in Denmark and turned out for Denmark’s youth sides), despite prominent figures in the game like Abby Erceg or Harry Ngata or Oceania Player of the Century Wynton Rufer’s Māori heritage, with the exception of the Wellington Phoenix’s rebrand this season, very little comes to mind that connects Māori to football in New Zealand. Far less suggests that football is a sport that even acknowledges Māori (compared with, say, rugby or rugby league).
Given that Indigenous players make up only around 1% of players in the A-League, it’s probably fair to say then that football in New Zealand and Australia hasn’t always been a hospitable space for its participants – particularly for Indigenous kids starting out in the game, as Te Ikaroa Wāhine player Tatjana Timmins-Scanlon recalls.
“When I was growing up in football, it was a big step for me to play football. Like, I got bullied for it, first of all because I played football – and nobody played football because rugby was the thing, whether you were Māori or not. Then it was like ‘Oh, you’re a Māori, you’re a Samoan girl, you shouldn’t be playing soccer you should be playing touch or you should be playing netball’. So I didn’t fit into that bubble.”
How did the Māori Football Movement start? Ideas started to circulate in Phill’s mind after he captained the New Zealand under 16s side against Australia in the 1980s, a time when he “was kind of disengaged from my Māori culture”. During an after match function the Aussies asked the New Zealanders to do a haka and the experience got Phill wondering what it would be like to play with more Māori and feel a greater connection to his culture:
“I was quite intrigued to explore what it would be like if you had more Māori and there was more of a cultural awareness element. To us actually being able to and encouraged to explore what is the culture, how do we connect to that culture, how do you look at your whakapapa, your lineage, things like that and take us back through that… and kind of understand how you incorporate that into your daily life, into your sport, and all the empowerment that that can bring you.”
Inspiration came from watching the Māori All Blacks and the sense of ‘WOW’, of being drawn in and being part of the wider crowd through aspects like the haka, because “I’d never seen football embracing that stuff.”
Over the years Phill wondered if someone else might address this gap in football – perhaps a pro with a profile and a similar hunger to promote the game to Māori. But no one did, and nothing really happened. So he kept talking and thinking it over, testing ideas with friends in the game.
The catalyst for finally forming the Māori Football organisation was the death of his mum, and her making him promise to “finally start that Māori football thing” after she died.
Aotearoa Football’s main focuses are “participation, protection and partnership. Which is about us trying to find those next levels, those other doorways” for the individuals involved in the organisation to achieve their potential. It’s about more than just getting ‘results’ and discovering the next big thing in football, since “New Zealand Football already has its talent pathways. The Māori Football movement is more about engagement and participation and continuing to grow that love.” It’s about showing that football is for everyone, and that everyone belongs in football and football belongs to everyone, irrespective of gender or cultural background.
“I say this with a pinch of salt, it doesn’t need to be specifically targeted as a message, like ‘let’s get more Māoris playing’, it’s more just around the promotion – Māori promoting it to Māori, you know?” says Phill.
“And almost saying, without me sounding rude or separatist about it, you send the right messenger into the right space, they get the right message across.”
Figures like Football Ferns striker Amber Hearn, and reinstated Fern Erceg (who’s recently come out of international retirement for the Ferns), both ambassadors for Aotearoa Football, are key messengers in the Māori and women’s football spaces. Particularly when it comes to the inequalities between the men’s and women’s games.
“When Abby stood up, that was another embodiment of female empowerment, against a male-dominated fraternity, essentially.”
The Wāhine team discussed Erceg’s “stance, her retirement, and what her message actually meant. All of a sudden the girls were like ‘well, good on her, how come boys always get all the good stuff?’ and I was like, that’s what I’m saying, the girls are just as good.”
“Why do they not get equal fair share? And why are they subjected to conditions that are unacceptable? It’s just not right. And they started to get it, started to have some conversations, and then all of a sudden there’s another strand of belief.”
Female empowerment was a particularly important focus for Phill when preparing Te Ikaroa Wāhine for Clash of the Cultures, starting with the team camp being very player-driven.
“I’ve learnt, if you empower the girls themselves and you get their input and you let them be part of the design concept, then things are very easy to coach; you’re sort of just managing things really. Because then they own it, and it comes down to ownership.”
“That was one of the things they [the girls] said they really appreciated – the empowerment, the opportunity to have input”.
Clash of the Cultures also saw the female coach Tarena Ranui take the lead on match day. “We established that right at the beginning of the camp. By the end of the week, the players knew that they were to take all instructions from Tarena.”
“Taking away that male dominance, eh?” Phill noted with a wry chuckle.
Football’s structures need not – should not – be exclusively Pākehā and patriarchal, after all. With women’s football in recent years asserting itself beyond the shadows of the men’s game, now we’re gradually seeing New Zealand football develop a new face – one representative of, and subsequently appealing to, the diverse communities it represents and engages with, it’s entirely appropriate and necessary that how football is done, so to speak, evolves and develop with it.
The Māori Football movement is about making football spaces more hospitable and welcoming and engaging where perhaps it wasn’t before. Series like Clash of the Cultures provide a platform for Indigenous footballers to play the beautiful game while remaining connected to their cultures. As Tatjana puts it, what Phill and Aoteroa Football are doing is “making it comfortable for Māori.”
Football’s a sport of expression, after all. Expression of the self, and simultaneously expression of the collective. When you step onto the field as a player, you play your best when you’re relaxed and comfortable with where you are and who you are. If players are empowered to not only enjoy football but excel in it as themselves, doing so while remaining engaged in their culture, without feeling that the two are incompatible, then our game’s all the stronger for it.
As Tatjana reflects on the experience of being part of Aotearoa Football and playing in Clash of the Cultures: “Not only am I representing myself, I’m representing my country, representing the Indigenous people of this country, and then in a sense with those two principles I’m representing myself. It all links.”
Waiheke Islander currently in exile in Wellington. Supporter of Nottingham Forest and England, through thick and thin (there's been plenty of that). As a player is somewhat averse to the offside rule.