Let’s rewind back nearly a fortnight, shall we?
In the bowels of Westpac Stadium, a press conference took place immediately after the Football Ferns played Nadeshiko Japan, in a friendly. Being the first Ferns home match since 2015, the first Ferns match in Wellington since 1991, and the first since the historic collective bargaining agreement was announced. There was a lot of media interest. The game was a big deal. It was finally an opportunity, a MASSIVE opportunity, for the spotlight to fall exclusively on women’s football.
On the day, over 7000 people turned up to watch a game featuring two of the world’s top 20 sides. But the Ferns, after being set up to play in an ultra-defensive formation against a fabulously skilful Nadeshiko side, a 5-4-1, lost 3-1.
We all know what happened next. What was said by Football Ferns coach Andreas Heraf. That there will now be a review into his conduct as Ferns coach during the Spain tour and the Ferns environment that it fostered.
In a curious, but perhaps not unexpected twist, the terms of the discussions about Heraf quickly switched. What began as shock and disappointment at Heraf’s specific approach to this Ferns game, and his comments afterwards, then morphed into a reaction to Heraf the Technical Director at NZ Football, and NZ Football CEO Andy Martin, driven by the football community’s more general frustrations about the direction of the governing body.
But the review is actually into Heraf the Football Ferns coach. Into what lead 13 players to conclude that the only course of action they could take to effect change was to make themselves unavailable to play for the Ferns – a team, an institution, an identity, that is core to their own beings. These are players who have travelled all over the world to better themselves for the Ferns, have sacrificed so much for the cause. That they’re willing to give that up, that they’ve had to take a stand like this, which will undoubtedly have broader ramifications other than for the Ferns, cannot be underestimated. But it feels like it is.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that, once this debacle blows over – whether it’s through a change of Ferns coach, or some other reform in the NZ Football hierarchy – that the story and struggle of the Ferns is being diluted and subsumed to a wider narrative about New Zealand Football in ways not necessarily helpful for the women’s game. Yes, Heraf’s football philosophy was clearly on display, both in the game and his after-match comments. And so yes, it is difficult to not also look at how this might relate to his other role with NZ Football. But the issue at hand, which must be kept at the heart of the conversation and in my view is in danger of being lost (if it hasn’t already), is what has happened to the Ferns.
There are people who, irrespective of their gender, have given so much to the women’s game. Be it through coaching, administration, following the game, giving it oxygen to breathe. Some truly wonderful people and organisations cover and will continue to cover women’s football in New Zealand, from grassroots to the elite levels, even when the news cycle rolls on and spotlight is switched off for a bit.
My concern here isn’t with these people and institutions. My concern is with those who’ve previously shown little interest in the women’s game, yet are suddenly proclaiming their allegiance and support of the Ferns and figures such as Abby Erceg, and expecting a round of applause for doing so. Which leaves me with questions.
Where were they before? Why didn’t they care before? Will they still care in a few months’ time when the situation is resolved? Will they, in the way they do for the men’s football teams they care about, and would do if the All Whites were the team under the spotlight here, engage in similarly nuanced and passionate discussions about who might be an alternative coaching option? The tactical approaches the Ferns could take as they qualify for the World Cup next year, and the Tokyo Olympics the year after? Will they have the knowledge (or, if they don’t already have the knowledge, make an effort to acquire the knowledge), to be able to do so? If so, great. If not, why not?
Consider also this: As a result of the furore, numerous takes have been sought out by our major news organisations. Some have been hot, some have been tepid at best.
Former All White Sam Malcolmson, interviewed by One News the day after the Ferns game was played and Heraf’s comments were made, opined that the tactical approach “sends out the wrong message – to the girls and the men.”
(As it happens, calling the Ferns ‘girls’ in the same breath you call the All Whites ‘men’ sends out the wrong message too.)
An op-ed writer for the NZ Herald griped that when he’d asked his daughter’s team who the Ferns players were when taking them to the Brazil game in 2014, they could only name one Fern.
(It’s almost as if someone with a platform as far-reaching the NZ Herald’s could… Do something about this. Maybe make the effort to research and write about the Ferns more often or something.)
But the RNZ Checkpoint interview with former All Whites coach Kevin Fallon must surely take the Ballon d’Oh. Framed as a discussion on the pending investigation into Heraf’s conduct as the Ferns coach, he barely touched on the issue at hand – Heraf’s conduct as the Fern’s coach.
After watching the six-minute video, of which the first five minutes saw the Ferns only indirectly alluded to, I’m actually none the wiser as to Fallon’s thoughts on the Football Ferns situation. Other than that, to his mind, they are “girls” and that
“they’re one of our national sides […] we’ve got four or five: we’ve got the under 17s, the under 20s, the Olympic side, the All Whites and the girls. Plus the age group positions in the girls. It’s very important, it’s part of our game, you know. Girls play football, girls have babies, they have babies, they play football, it’s massive.”
When asked by Checkpoint for his thoughts as to who might be a suitable alternative coach for the Ferns, Fallon replied that he “wouldn’t have a clue” on the matter.
(Let it be put on the record that, as a woman who plays football, I’m delighted to learn that in the eyes of a figure afforded tremendous standing in New Zealand’s football community, my value to the game is tied to my possession of a womb.)
Why are we amplifying certain men’s voices on women’s football when they’re not actually adding anything of real value to the conversation? Put another way, why aren’t we amplifying women’s voices?
We have so many articulate, experienced, brilliant women in the game in New Zealand. Yes, we’ve heard from Erceg and Katie Duncan, but that’s it. You can’t seriously be telling me that, of the other 181-odd current and former Ferns, none of them were available for comment? Didn’t have an opinion? Had nothing worth saying or being heard to say on the matter?
Now, we’ve got a chance to set the terms and tone of how we engage with the issue. And we do this by getting some things right from the start. It’s not hard. Women, not girls. Listening to people with the knowledge, experience and insights specific to the issue at hand. And if they aren’t easy to find, look harder for them. They’re there, with things to say. And then, when they are talking, listen to what they actually say, not what you want them to say.
When we don’t do this, what we’re implicitly saying is that we don’t think there are any women capable of speaking on or worth hearing from on the issues at hand. And that, when they do speak, it can only be in terms that resonate with the men’s game.
Take, for example, the World Cup. As you read those words, what do you think of first, the men’s or the women’s tournaments? Do realise that the men’s world cup is always simply referred to as the World Cup, whereas the Women’s World Cup must always be prefaced with a gender-indicator. Tell me, what’s centred here by the way we talk and communicate about football, in the apparently gender-neutral sense? Men’s football. And what’s the secondary implication? That women’s football is the lesser of the two, and always will be. And given the trajectory of the response to the review, this is what I’m hearing now.
This is an issue that we as fans and members of New Zealand’s football community need to take upon ourselves to tackle. We choose the terms by which we engage in these conversations when we choose the words we utter. We also choose how we listen to one another, and demonstrate this by what we respond to.
How we engage – the language used, the people who write the stories, the people invited to provide comment on these stories, the stories that are read and heard – is so vital to the growth of the game and the engagement with the issues. We hardly ever get the chance to engage in proper, sustained discussions about women’s football. Would it hurt to try and do so in a way which is respectful and appropriate to the context? It’s so easy to accidentally get things wrong. And it’s so easy to let these wrongs accumulate – especially when they seem minor. And this just perpetuates the systematic sidelining of women’s football – here meant in its broadest sense; the players, the coaches, the administrators, the fans, and everyone else in between – in favour of the status quo. So in the event it’s pointed out that the approach taken to the discussion perhaps isn’t the most helpful, why not take a moment to consider why this may be the case?
The women’s game needs to be allowed its space to grow. It also needs to be allowed to do so on its own terms. Which can only really be done by those with that knowledge and experience. To not do so takes advantage of the fact, no, erases the fact, that historically gender is one of the defining forces of the women’s game, and has contributed to producing this contemporary moment. It diminishes the importance of what is going on.
As women, it’s frustrating to engage in these conversations. It feels that, in order to take part, you have to do so very carefully. You couch everything you say. You acknowledge very readily that you’re ‘not an expert’ (what even qualifies one as an expert?). You think about the ways in which your words might get interpreted, lest they be wilfully construed as an attack on a person rather than the point they’re making. You do this knowing that, should you challenge the terms by which the discussion is being had, you’re quickly shut down, dismissed, or told you’re overreacting. Or just ignored. You have to work so much harder to be heard.
We’re sick of it and we’re done with it.
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.