[This piece first appeared in the Hamilton Wanderers match day programme ‘Sidelined’ on the 24th of February 2018]
New Zealand is the best place in the world to be a football fan. Trust me, it is. Yet crowds at our national league games continue to be insanely low. Why?
In my opinion it’s not, as many believe, because our game is poorly run or on at the wrong time of year or organised into franchises instead of clubs. Nor is it, as others might tell you, because football fans are lazy or tight with their money.
I believe it’s because we don’t understand how lucky we are and we don’t do a very good job (or we don’t ever try) selling an attractive vision of our sport to Joe and Josephine Public. In short, we are a bunch of miserable complainers – that’s our real problem.
As fans of the game, we get 50 weeks of football per year with our winter clubs and summer national leagues. How many football mad countries would kill for a football year that long? I’ll tell you how many – 191. 194 if you recognise Taiwan and count Palestine and the Holy See as countries.
New Zealand football fans are (I’m sorry to generalise) the only people in the world who can look at that feast of football and still find something to be miserable about. “Football is a winter sport, if I’m not ankle deep in mud and taking horizontal rain in the face I’m not interested!” or worse: “If it’s not the English Premier League I’m not interested.”
There is so much to rave about when it comes to the round ball code in this country.
We have idyllic settings. You can watch football on top of an extinct volcano at Onehunga Mangere United. You can watch it surrounded by vineyards, flares, drumming and Latin American singing at Waiheke United. You can stand on a balcony overlooking the islands of the Hauraki Gulf at Beachlands Maraetai. Or you might prefer to be serenaded by the sound of mooing cattle at Tokoroa. Or appreciate the uniquely New Zealand suburban environment of Kiwitea Street – and the steak sandwiches aren’t bad there either!
And never mind the so-called standard of football. Grassroots or ‘Lower League Football’ is all the rage internationally. A huge number of people are turning their backs on glittery leagues where the almighty dollar dominates, fans are treated like cash cows and players are bought and sold like slabs of meat for the GDP of small countries.
Paul Scholes’ summed it up nicely in his autobiography:
“I probably do enjoy watching Salford more. I don’t know if it’s as much that I don’t like the hassle of going to the game, getting in, sitting in traffic. Going to Salford, I park up behind the goal and get out of my car. But I genuinely get more enjoyment from watching even my son’s team, Royter Town. …I went to watch him once, it was 5-4. It’s just entertainment. …It’s all about money and sponsorship in England these days rather than football, rather than entertainment.”
In New Zealand it’s all Salfords and Royter Towns. The only difference is parking up behind the goal might be slightly more likely to get your car dinged by a wayward shot.
But if you want to remain someone who insists on seeing nothing but the best players in the world, then we can cater for that too! You should learn to appreciate the women’s game.
Our national women’s team, the Football Ferns, is ranked in the world’s top 20 and they are capable of beating anyone on their day. A couple of years ago they defeated Brazil in Brazil. And a number of their top players play week in week out in New Zealand club football.
Last winter you could have watched Katie Rood play in the Northern League for Glenfield Rovers – fast forward six months and she’s now at Juventus. Many of the female players we can rock up to a suburban park and watch play from behind a little bit of yellow rope would set you back $50 to see play in a 50,000 seat European stadium if they were men of the same international standing.
Talking to ourselves about this stuff isn’t enough though. We have to believe it, we have to crave sharing it and we have to get out and promote it any way we can.
As you probably know, because you are at a New Zealand National League game and let’s face it you must be a die hard, when Manchester United started out they weren’t Manchester United. They were called Newton Heath and they played on a little paddock that was part of a railway yard. They didn’t grow into the most recognisable brand in world football by aspiring to be something they weren’t. They celebrated what they were.
And it wasn’t a hell of a lot different to what we have now.
If they can do it, so can we!
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.