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How to Kiwi

By Ella and Enzo

The Kiwi spirit, the Kiwi way, give ‘em a taste of Kiwi.

Defining ourselves as a nation by the way our sports teams play and vice versa is nothing new. But does it actually make any sense?

What is “Kiwi”?

Decades ago, to be Kiwi or to exhibit Kiwiness, collectively and publicly, could be distilled into ‘rugby, racing and beer’. Kiwiness was confined to and perpetuated by traditionally masculine domains. So how then might the idea of Kiwiness apply to a more gender and sporting diverse domain such as football?

In a football context, over the past couple of months, Kiwi appears to have been defined as playing positively, believing you can win, and taking it to the opposition no matter how good they are. At least, that’s how it was evoked during the fallout from the Football Ferns fixture in Wellington in June.

Ask any New Zealand fan of any code what they see as the traits that exemplify the Kiwi spirit and they might say it’s punching above our weight, being innovative, never giving up, taking on the world and any number of other things.

It’s a bit absurd though. We are not alone as a country in any of those things. If we think we are we really need to get out more.

And even if we suppose for a minute that they are defining traits of Kiwiness. Do you have to display all of them to be Kiwi or is some of them ok? Does one cut it or is it a 50%+1 thing? You must be able to get away with only ticking some of the boxes because the New Zealand Under 20 women put in a Herculean defensive effort to draw 0-0 with France last week, and that appears to have been considered Kiwi as bro.

But if a team doesn’t display any of the above things, does that mean the whole side is not Kiwi enough? Or only some of the players? Or just the coach? And if they are not Kiwi then what are they? Perhaps *their* spirits are Azerbaijani? Or Madagascan?

And surely national identity is not only about the good things? New Zealand has high rates of alcohol abuse and domestic violence and this has permeated our sporting culture just as it does every other aspect of society. The Chiefs rugby team’s ‘mad Monday’ sexual assault is the most pertinent recent example of this. Some people who expressed concern at that were accused of not being Kiwi enough too…

How do you measure national characteristics anyway?

Is it just in the style of play, tactics, or is it something more? The personality and character traits exhibited by individual players, perhaps? At what point do descriptions of national virtues and characteristics stop being applied to the collective of the team, and become a lens trained on the individuals who make up that collective – the players, the coaching staff, and other ancillary bodies? At what point do these begin to matter – and to what end?

This is best exemplified by events from further afield. During the men’s world cup, Romelu Lukaku’s widely shared Players Tribune piece outlined how

“When things were going well … they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker.

“When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent”.

Lukaku’s ability to highlight the double standard that he has been subjected to, during a strong showing at the World Cup by himself and Belgium, is perhaps made more apparent by Mesut Özil’s retirement from the German national team after its meek defence of its 2014 title.

That he met with Erdoğan shortly before the world cup – an act that most charitably can be described as naïve, given the Turkish president’s human rights abuses – in an acknowledgement of his Turkish heritage, has caused issues. But this has not occurred in a vacuum – it must be understood in the context of the incessant questioning and undermining of Özil’s identities and commitment to the German national team throughout his career, and how he has been used as a scapegoat (issues that demand consideration of themselves – see here and here). Had Germany’s World Cup performances been stronger, we could reasonably assume that Özil mightn’t have retired in this way, nor received the criticisms that he has (although we can’t know for certain).

Using national identities as tools of praise, when they become believed to be virtues in and of themselves, is uncomfortable territory for our sporting discourse to be rooted in. As we can see, it can quickly shift from praise to a weapon of condemnation. That we’re so quick to invoke nationalities to condemn as well as celebrate is therefore due some consideration. It’s worth asking what are we really saying when we use this language – what do we really want to say? And are we really saying what we want to say, or do we just think we’re saying it?

The point at which teams are differentiated from the administrative bodies and federations, which are distinguished from the fans and supporters, which are a step removed from the media, is blurred when so many of us occupy these different identities ourselves, often simultaneously.

When we declare a team to have put on a ‘true Kiwi performance’, or to have not, what are we really saying? That certain performances are enactments of the traits, or that they typify a performance that we’ve come to expect from a team representing a particular geography or geopolitical understanding. These things are similar but not the same. The teams are representations of the geography, yes, but it is simplistic to conflate them with that geography.

In the aftermath of the Ferns game in June and the resignations that followed it, there have been calls for “New Zealanders who are passionate about football” to fill the newly vacant roles. As if only New Zealanders will have the interests of New Zealand football at heart and understand what it is to be Kiwi. And as if those who filled the roles before didn’t care about football.

All of this is in spite of the fact that, in a general sense, not caring very much about football might be one of the few things that marks New Zealand out as truly unique!

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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