If Kate Sheppard was a footballer, she’d undoubtedly be a playmaker. She’d lead from the front, pull the strings and spearhead the attack. Elegant, precise, she’d prise open the field with a well-timed run or bring in her teammates with a perfectly weighted through ball. But she wouldn’t be afraid of putting her body on the line, oh no. On the rare occasion she’s had to track back, it’s been to put in a crunching tackle. Regardless of whether she takes the decisive action herself or sets up a teammate, you’ll be tracing her team’s successes back to her movements and her footsteps.
On International Women’s Day (8 March 2018), and 125 years ago to that day that gender-equal suffrage was achieved in New Zealand, New Zealand Football announced that they were (finally!) renaming the Women’s Knockout Cup – as the Kate Sheppard Cup.
The cup’s relaunch comes at an opportune time for women’s sport, and the collective push for it to be given the same respect and attention that men’s sport gets in Aotearoa New Zealand. Over the past couple of weeks, Newsroom announced that they would have a dedicated space for women’s sport coverage, Locker Room, and the NZRU announced that, at last, they’d be properly contracting the Black Ferns. Over the last few months, there’s been a noticeable push for improved coverage and visibility of women’s sport. And don’t forget that the National Women’s League is a two-round competition this year!
New Zealand Football’s women’s development officer, Holly Nixon, notices a resonance n “We’re kind of seeing that movement [in women’s sport] pick up. I think it will be quite exciting in the next five to ten years to see how much we can progress. It’s all around changing mindsets, which takes some time to do.”
Despite the competition being around for almost a quarter of a century, the Women’s Knockout Cup hasn’t had the strongest presence in the public football psyche – certainly not in the way its men’s counterpart, the Chatham Cup, does. While this has something to do with the relative obscurity of women’s football in New Zealand’s male-dominated sporting mindset, you could probably also link the collective ambivalence to the name. ‘Women’s Knockout Cup’ doesn’t exactly set the heart aflutter in anticipation, nor tell much of a story beyond it being a knockout cup competition for women’s football. It does what it says on the tin, but that’s about it.
In spite of this, it holds a special place in the minds of the most important people in all of this, the players. As Holly points out, it’s still one of New Zealand football’s most special competitions. Any team can enter (usually around 40 do), irrespective of the division they play in, which offer scope for the David and Goliath match ups that we’d usually associate with the FA Cup. Some of our top players cut their teeth in the competition: Katie Rood, who signed for Juventus last year, is a three-time winner and the competition’s all-time leading goal scorer with 37 goals.
The idea to rename the cup, driven by chair of the Women’s Football Committee Sue Griffin, saw the call made last year. Of course, who (or what) the cup should be named after took a little time to decide upon.
“Do we go down the naming of a football player, or do we do something a little bit different? We were tossing it up,” says Holly, “Because we’re all about trying to engage with female footballers from the past, and trying to showcase them [as happens with the Maia Jackman Trophy, given to the best player in the Women’s Knockout/Kate Sheppard Cup final] – but on the flipside we saw there was an opportunity to target a larger audience than just the football community.”
When I first heard that New Zealand Football was renaming the WKOC the Kate Sheppard, my first instinct was that it was a great idea. Someone like Kate Sheppard, who is emblematic of women’s rights in New Zealand and around the world, is the ideal level of ‘a little bit different’ that might trigger an interest in women’s football beyond those of us already involved in it.
It also reminds us of the fact that, in order for the women’s game to develop, and to help us expand our football communities, “we don’t always have to do what the men’s game is doing, we can carve our own way, do things that are actually going to be beneficial for women” (as Holly puts it).
It usually feels like whenever we talk about improving the lot of women’s football, we think of it happening only in terms identical to the men’s game. Yet the FIFPro report released at the end of last year, examining the current conditions of the women’s game and its possible futures, strongly emphasises that this isn’t necessarily the best approach:
Action […] must not be about blindly seeking equality with a commercial football model that fails to put the rights of players at its core. As the women’s game grows, it should preserve the many positive aspects it currently has, including strong levels of solidarity, its ability to blend careers with education, and its recognition that women footballers are more than just players.
The report echoes a comment Kate Sheppard herself made about the changing ways in which womanhood came to be seen during the push for the right to vote:
We are tired of having a ‘sphere’ doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is ‘unwomanly’. We want to be natural just for a change … we must be ourselves at all risks.
The idea of being female and not being ‘unnatural’ in football is an important one to hold onto as the women’s game grows, both here and overseas, if it’s to develop and stand on its own merits. Having the aim of inspiring and celebrating women and their achievements embedded in its competitions makes that aim a little bit more tangible.
Some concerns have been raised in the football community that this was a missed opportunity to honour someone like Dr Barbara Cox, who has done so much for the game as a player, scholar, coach, administrator. Which is a totally valid point that we, as a football community, don’t celebrate the important figures and pioneers of the women’s game enough – and that we need to raise the awareness beyond our immediate communities, the general awareness of the women’s game.
So, in turn, it also reminds us that it requires a collective effort to celebrate these figures, from all of us in the football community. We can (and should) be inspired to do more – and create more opportunities to do so, and that recognising the legends of our comes at grassroots level just as much as it does from above.
These days, when a competition or a cup is renamed, it’s almost always and exclusively after a corporate sponsor. If you’re a follower of English football, for example, you need a flip chart, several calendars and infinite patience in order to figure out a) what the Carabao Cup is/was and b) whether your club might have won it in a previous incarnation. The competition becomes meaningless, begging the question, what are you playing in the name of? Energy drinks?
With the Kate Sheppard Cup, you know exactly what you’re playing for. Renaming our top women’s football club competition after the key figure women’s suffrage ties the cup to a longer history of women breaking boundaries in New Zealand, and signalling the hope that they will continue to do so. It also points to the intent of New Zealand Football to elevate the lot of the women’s game here – as it should. By comparison, could you see the English FA naming the women’s FA Cup after Emmeline Pankhurst?
Protest, pushback and smashing boundaries are intricately linked to the women’s game. Female footballers will rage against the machine that’s excluded them from the game for as long as needed.
So the Kate Sheppard Cup also reminds us that these fights are not yet won. And that these fights are tied not just to attitudes towards female athletes, and the fight for women in sport to be respected on and off the pitch, but women in all positions in society. It recognises that what happens in the women’s game is more than just a game, that it has an impact beyond the pitch for the girls and women who are a part of the beautiful game. And that’s something worth playing for.
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.