In the month or so leading up to tomorrow’s Football Ferns match against Japan, it seemed like New Zealand couldn’t stop talking about women’s football.
It started with news of this match. The Football Ferns would play against the 2015 World Cup finalists and current world number 11-ranked side Japan, marking the Ferns’ first home game since 2015, and the first game in Wellington since 1991 – in the same venue which only months earlier hosted the All Whites’ packed out World Cup qualifier against Peru.
Shortly after, New Zealand Football, the NZPFA and New Zealand’s football communities celebrated the ground-breaking collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which made headlines around the world.
But then reports surfaced about possible problems within the Ferns set up: rumours of an ‘unprofessional culture’ with the new coach, and suggestions that there was provision in the CBA to prevent players from speaking out about this – a ‘gagging clause’. Then un-retired Fern and former captain Abby Erceg re-retired – a fact New Zealand Football buried in the middle of its squad-naming press release. THEN it emerged that Nike weren’t going to sell women’s versions of the new NZ Football kits (they’ve since reneged on that one).
Football Fern and NZPFA board member Sarah Gregorius acknowledges all of this with a rueful laugh. “Yeah, it when it rains it pours, you know what I mean?”
“It kills me because there’s all this ‘why would we put women’s shirts for sale, nobody buys them…’. Well, you don’t buy something if it’s not there. And that’s the part that kills me – it’s conceding the point without even trying.”
She points to a recent instance across the Tasman, where a fan attending a Matildas match made his own Sam Kerr shirt in the absence of one for sale – adding a zero and ‘Kerr’ in gaffer tape to a Lucas Neill #2 Socceroos shirt.
“You’re telling me there’s not a market for it? I’m not convinced. Hopefully they’ve got the message.”
Thanks to a sustained engagement with the women’s game there’s an unprecedented level interest in the Football Ferns and women’s football more broadly. It’s a marked contrast to the relative indifference the Ferns’ last home games drew a few years ago, when they played Australia and Korea DPR in the somewhat less salubrious setting of Panmure’s Bill McKinlay Park, or when they played Brazil at Mt Smart in 2014 and no one had bothered to get the EFTPOS machines working. If you’d uttered the acronym ‘CBA’ then, ‘can’t be arsed’ would have leapt to mind faster than ‘collective bargaining agreement’.
But the conversation hasn’t entirely gone the way we might have expected it to – certainly not with the re-retirement of Erceg.
So when there’s not been this sort of attention on women’s football before, and the conversation has gone in an unexpected direction, how do you deal with that? Gregorius is matter-of-fact about it.
“As difficult as it’s been with how public things have become, at the same time I don’t want to discourage it. I think what’s also made it tricky from a player’s perspective and potentially from the organisations and other stakeholders that are involved is we’ve never actually had a spotlight on women’s football the way that it’s been turned on recently. So it’s brand new for everybody.”
“I don’t want to discourage that, because I’m like ‘the more attention the better!’. You want people to care, absolutely, you want these journalists to investigate, and if they feel that something is wrong to go further and peel the rug back and things like that so that, I think it sends a message to anybody that you don’t operate behind closed doors anymore – because there’s a genuine interest and genuine care.”
It’s in this vein that there’s been an intrigue in the fact that the actual text of the CBA hasn’t made public (by comparison, the NZRU and NZRPA’s is, as are many other collective agreements). Was keeping the text of the CBA out of the public eye a conscious decision?
“It wasn’t deliberately not made public if that makes sense, but at the same time it hasn’t deliberately been made public,” says Gregorius.
“I was there for the entirety of the two days [of the negotiations], it wasn’t like ‘oh, by the way, let’s do this and never talk about it again.’”
Gregorius also points out that, as with any employment agreement, there is a code of conduct that employees are expected to abide by, and that this exists primarily for on-field situations. It’s also not “an exclusive thing that’s come up in football and only football.”
“In terms of it being there to ‘gag’ players? I think that’s probably a little extreme.”
“A ‘gagging clause’ hasn’t been inserted. But again, we’re operating in a space that we’ve never operated in before, so I guess there’s a different level of scrutiny, and I think everybody has to be aware of it.”
“What’s in the CBA is not this random thing that NZ Football and the PFA have cooked up because we need to keep players quiet about anything.”
“That’s really counterintuitive, because actually, as an organisation, if you want to be progressive and move forward then you actually need players to feel as if they can speak. Because otherwise the environment doesn’t improve.”
Continuing the conversation
The CBA was announced in the context of a broader push for gender equality in sport worldwide, but especially so in New Zealand. News site Newsroom launched LockerRoom, a section dedicated to the coverage of women’s sport. Several days after the CBA was announced, NZ Cricket revealed that the White Ferns would also travel business class. Then NZ Rugby confirmed central contracts for the Black Ferns. As Gregorius points out, “if you’re talking about legacy and that sort of thing, yeah, you do want it to extend beyond the current generation, beyond our sporting code and things like that”.
That the CBA ensures that players, irrespective of gender, will be treated equally by NZ Football shouldn’t be taken as meaning the conversation around developing game has ended. It’s something that Gregorius stresses is “ongoing”, with the NZPFA to continue facilitating the conversation to be responsive to player needs. In reality, the conversation has only really begun: we’re now in a position where discussions can progress to other player needs.
“There’s always room for improvement, always! I guess what I find really exciting is that, next time we go to have the conversation, it’s 60 of the best footballers in NZ, across both genders, having the conversation, and presenting the issues, not only [in terms of] what’s relevant to the national team but also for the good of the game.”
How the women’s game might further develop has received wider attention. The FIFPro 2017 report into the experiences of women footballers points out that in order for the women’s game to continue to develop to its potential (such as in the professional space), it need not follow the same route as the men’s game.
Gregorius agrees. “I think in terms of the marketability of women’s sport, the potential is massive, I just… I don’t think it can be fully articulated, I think it’s just massively undersold. And I think a part of that is because it’s looked at through the same lens that men’s sport is viewed in.
“I think you have to move away from treating women’s football as totally adjunct to men’s football”.
After all, girls and women come to football (whether it’s as players, coaches, fans, and many other capacities) in quite different circumstances to boys and men. This naturally results in different pressures on female athletes. The conversation needs to address this. How, for instance, can the professional game adapt to be welcoming for players who want to have a family and continue playing? The answer, Gregorius says, is through policies around the game which take into account the bigger picture.
“There needs to be a lot more research and policy created around female-specific issues.”
“Male athletes and female athletes, while there’s a lot of similarities there’s also a lot of differences, I think in terms of accessibility is one thing, but also what female athletes have been through and the resilience that they’ve built up and the way that they do tend to focus a lot – have had to focus a lot – on having a bit more of a dual career and having an education outside of their sport and that sort of thing.
“Those are really great messages and I think that automatically puts female athletes in a bit of a different light in terms of the role models that they could be”.
Talking points over the last couple of months have demonstrated that, given the chance, there’s a space for conversations about women’s football in New Zealand, and particularly the Football Ferns, to flourish. We’ve finally moved into a space where it’s a given that our footballers should and will be treated equally, irrespective of their gender, not a moot point.
This has built a new platform for which the players who are pulling on the Fern, whether it’s on a women’s or man’s cut shirt, can properly perform on and be celebrated. The space has finally been cleared for focus and attention to be on the Ferns’ achievements on the pitch, both for New Zealand and their clubs.
Inevitably there will be other issues that crop up – nothing can be 100% perfect 100% of the time. There’s no denying a lingering sense of regret that Erceg won’t be on the pitch on Sunday, for instance. But we can still be thankful for her contribution to New Zealand football while making a conscious effort to look to the future.
Gregorius puts it best:
“Don’t focus on the hole in the fabric, look at the bigger picture. Do acknowledge the players that are there, celebrate them. Acknowledge Abby 100%, celebrate Abby, we’ve still got more out of her than we’ve got out of any other player in the history of the game. But for the ones who are there, they are amazing, incredible, talented women as well who are worthy of attention.”
“There are a lot of really incredible stories out there that are worthy of being told.”
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.