Given the context of today’s announcement of Abby Erceg’s retirement, there is bound to be much analysis in the coming days. Erceg theoretically had several more years of international football to play in her career. She had only just returned. The decision comes right on the heels of the world-leading parity agreement announced last week, but equally follows the publication of allegations of an unprofessional culture in the Ferns. The questions are obvious. And, as a feminist and as someone who follows the women’s game closely, I believe that their answers are important. But as an 18-year-old who has played football since the age of 4, as someone who, before age brought reality with it, aspired to be a Football Fern, there is something else I want to say first.
Abby Erceg’s Football Ferns career should be celebrated, regardless of how or why it ended. She was, for many years, the captain of one of our national sports teams. There is no reason that, amongst all that will be published about her retirement, there should not also be the traditional celebration of what she achieved. On the pitch, Abby Erceg is an incredible central defender and was a lynchpin for the Ferns, noted for her supreme athleticism. She will continue to turn out for the North Carolina Courage, which is worth mentioning. A New Zealander playing professional women’s football in the States is inspirational for young players. It demonstrates a viable pathway for girls and women.
That brings me to the less pitch-oriented qualities in Erceg’s possession that deserve equal attention. Erceg embodied the ethos of the Football Ferns: play for the love of the game, and she led them as captain for many years. Then, last year she made a great personal sacrifice. She spoke up for her colleagues in order to do what she felt was right. When she announced her early retirement and went on the radio to explain her motivation as being the way New Zealand Football treated its female players, it had a nuclear effect. New Zealand Football reeled, footballers and commentators the world over began talking about it and it promoted true discussion about just how female players were actually treated. By the way, the answer at that time (if less so now) was: not well. Players couldn’t afford the commitment being asked of them.
Abby’s decision created space for people like us, and of course journalists, to talk about it. We got to bring the discussion up in a new light, and engage new people with the issues that needed addressing. I firmly believe that what Erceg did would have had no small impact on the parity decision we saw last week. And make no mistake-it came with a personal cost. Erceg was criticised for the choice. She gave up her captaincy, her chance to play for her country, in order to give New Zealand Football the chance to get better.
I have profound respect for people with that level of integrity in every and any sphere. I also believe that equality on the pitch has tremendous impact on equality off the pitch, and that football provides a useful focus-point for wider feminist concerns. In light of that, on the day that she again announces her time playing for New Zealand is up, I want to thank Abby Erceg. When I was growing up I had pictures of her on my wall. She was what 8-year-old me wanted to be. Now though, the strength of character and desire for positive change that the last year demonstrated have transformed her into who 18-year-old-me would love to become. I mean that in a general sense. Her football career is incredible and should be celebrated. But we must also, on this day of all days, talk about Abby Erceg’s qualities as a person and leader. We must discuss, so that we remember, how those qualities have benefited the Ferns over the decade just gone, and will continue to benefit them in the many decades to come.
It’s a little tricky to know what to say in this situation. In part because it’s a little tricky to know what exactly the situation is.
In case you missed it (which was easy to do), the press release with the Football Ferns squad list released by New Zealand Football today contained the line ‘Defender Abby Erceg has confirmed her retirement from international football’ buried in the middle of it.
You don’t know what you don’t know. Which makes it difficult to know what to say in this situation, because you don’t want to inadvertently perpetuate narratives that are untrue or unfair to those involved.
But what do we know?
As Helena points out above, Erceg’s retirement comes off the back of allegations of an ‘unprofessional culture’ (whatever that means) in the last Ferns camp. The ‘confirmation’ of Erceg’s retirement was something that Ferns coach Andreas Heraf said he’d been aware of it just after the Spain camp.
So far, Erceg has declined to comment on her retirement. So really, we’ve only heard one side of the story.
News of Erceg’s retirement comes the same week she played a blinder for the North Carolina Courage, putting away a wonderful header in the process, and making many commentators’ teams of the week for the NWSL.
It feels almost like we’ve been unable to celebrate her career – perhaps because we just don’t want the Ferns chapter of it to end.
Hers was an international career ground-breaking in so many ways.
Erceg made her Ferns debut in 2006 as a 17-year-old. She played in the under-20 World Cup in Russia in 2006, scoring New Zealand’s first ever goal at that level. She played in the full Women’s World Cup in China the following year.
She went to become the first New Zealand footballer, male or female, to play a century of games for their country. As it stands, she’s the Ferns’ most-capped player on 133 caps. As long as I’ve been aware of the Football Ferns, I’ve been aware of Abby Erceg. She’s synonymous with the team. A legend in every sense of the word.
We also can’t lose sight of what else Abby Erceg means to football in New Zealand. On the pitch, the best footballers in the world know how to create space for themselves and their team mates. Off the pitch, Abby Erceg more than anyone in recent years has created a space in New Zealand where we can discuss the issues significantly affecting women’s football, and push for real change.
I wrote last week about the power of the CBA and what it might mean for young female footballers today. The word since then is that players have been effectively gagged by the agreement via a ‘provision’ which, according to Stuff, means players can be fined (potentially thousands of dollars) if they make ‘negative public comments which brought NZF into disrepute’.
We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know if it’s a provision new to this CBA, whether its inclusion was triggered by Erceg’s retirement last year, or whether it’s simply been dormant over the years thanks to New Zealand’s general apathy towards football.
But what I know is that for myself my interest in, my awareness of, the Football Ferns and what women’s football in New Zealand meant more generally was significantly sharpened when Erceg took her initial stand. It made me understand what football could and should mean in New Zealand, its capacity for change, and our responsibility as fans to help grow and sustain the game.
I get that we don’t want to take anything away from the ground-breaking nature of the CBA, nor the importance of next month’s game against Japan – and no one who cares about the women’s game wants that. But at the same time we’re celebrating these achievements, surely we should also be able to have conversations where we acknowledge if and when relevant that things can still be better? We can be pleased with what we’ve achieved, while continuing to strive for improvement. After all, isn’t this a vital quality in an elite footballer?
So what does this all mean?
It reminds us that you don’t become – or remain – a role model simply because you pull on a shirt adorned with a certain logo. Your actions in the shirt, and out of the shirt, in spite of the shirt are what make you a role model, not the shirt itself Wearing the shirt might garner you attention initially, but it’s what you do with it that matters.
Sadly, from today, we’re going to learn what it means to have one of those role models no longer wearing the Football Ferns shirt. Abby Erceg: we’ll miss you.
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.