100 years separates New Zealand milestones

  • New Zealand celebrated two major milestones over the weekend

  • Landmarks separated by almost exactly 100 years

  • Wellington Phoenix become nation’s first professional women’s club side

“It seems certain that girls’ football has come to stay.”

So opined the Christchurch-based The Press while reporting on the first recognised women’s football match played between provincial teams in New Zealand in 1921.

The match played on 24 September – incredibly, on the very same day as the first recognised women’s football game for 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup hosts Australia – featured teams representing Wellington and Christchurch.

One hundred years on, players representing the two regions gathered at the same English Park venue in Christchurch on Saturday to recreate that epoch-launching match.

Meanwhile, less than 24 hours earlier, Wellington Phoenix became the first professional women’s club side to take the field when they debuted as the tenth club in the newly-rebranded A-League Women.

“It is an absolute game-changer,” said Phoenix coach Gemma Lewis, a graduate of the FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme, in reference to the new side. “Our top players have had access to professional football through moving countries, but that’s a big barrier for a lot of players, especially at a younger age.

“Now there’s a team for Kiwis to aspire to be part of that’s incredibly close to home - you now have a complete pathway in New Zealand that’s sustainable and tangible. You can stay in your country and you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to.”

Due to Covid-related restrictions, the team will play the majority of this season’s matches in Australia, while various limitations means the team is largely comprised of teenagers.

It will nevertheless be a familiar environment for Lewis with numerous players having featured in New Zealand’s 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup bronze-medal winning side, a team coached by the Welsh 31-year-old.

The Phoenix’s full-time base in Australia means Lewis has unfettered access to her players, with the players enjoying technical analysis, regular gym and more. Something which Lewis hopes will “accelerate our development”.

It is a vastly different scenario to that facing those players a century ago.

What is certain, however, is that those bold pioneers carved out a special moment in time.

A fact recognised by The Press, which stated that the players at that landmark 1921 match “proclaimed their right to football – a pastime which those of the stronger sex had considered was their own special privilege.”

The report, despite displaying a particular type of gender-focussed commentary reflective of the era, hailed the players: “Those expecting to see something like a burlesque must have been disappointed, because the players, suitably garbed and well-trained for the occasion, took the game seriously ... and infused some bright flashes into the game.”

Fast forward to the present day and New Zealand is now able to revel in a full century of women’s football, albeit with celebrations that were postponed a few months due to the pandemic.

A long, and at times challenging, journey will reach full circle in 2023 when New Zealand and Australia welcome the world.