- New Zealand’s national women’s team debuted in 1975
- Inaugural captain Barbara Cox tells FIFA.com about the early challenges
- Team were forced to raise money
When the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ gets underway Down Under in 2023, it will be approaching half a century since New Zealand fielded its first women’s national team. The Football Ferns debuted in 1975 at the very first edition of what would later become the AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
To say the nature of women’s football in New Zealand has changed dramatically since then would be a massive understatement.
An invitation from the Asian Ladies Football Confederation propelled the three active women’s associations – Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury - to hastily form the New Zealand’s Women’s Soccer Association.
“Our first job was to raise the money,” New Zealand’s first captain, Barbara Cox, told FIFA.com.
“One [method] was to go into the pubs saying ’20 cents for a kiss’, and another was to literally walk up and down the street with a box saying ‘could you please donate money’. There were about four of us who raised a bit of money like that.
“There weren’t so many opportunities to raise money back then. We also did car washing. The government chipped in some money and we each had to pay $100 each.
“The first thing I did when we arrived in Hong Kong for the tournament was buy some boots. Manufacturers didn’t think women played, so if you were size 5 or under, you had to play in children’s boots. So we had to play in brand new boots the whole time which you would never do now.”
Cox had only been playing for just two years when she debuted for the national team, such was the embryonic nature of the game.
New Zealand found their feet quickly, winning all four matches, each of which were 60 minutes in duration. The Kiwis won the six-nation tournament with a victory over Thailand following on from a semi-final triumph over Australia.
“We had amazing publicity when we got back with press, TV and radio greeting us at the airport,” Cox recalled. The team received due recognition for their feats, but also faced patronising headlines, among them ‘Gorgeous goal getters’ and ‘Soccer’s definitely going to the birds’.
Following success in Hong Kong, a week-long national competition was held in 1976 and every region soon established a women’s association. There were, however, regular hurdles to clear.
“We had problem with ground access, and sometimes we played at school grounds,” Cox said. “You always came to the ground dressed to play because you never knew what facilities would be on offer.
“Another issue was that many clubs wouldn’t accept women’s players. There were still a lot of men who seemed to not want to have us encroach on their area, or thought we would get hurt.
“Then of course there were plenty of comments along the lines of ‘we shouldn’t be playing because it is not ladylike’.
“But at the same time there were plenty of men that helped us. That was invaluable because of course there weren’t any females that had experience of coaching. That was brilliant, and so on one hand you had men who really wanted to help, and then others who didn’t want us anywhere near them.”
Barbara’s husband Roy, who played youth football for Brentford and Queens Park Rangers, helped put together the first women’s team at his Mt Eden club in Auckland. Both the couple's daughters, Michele and Tara, played for New Zealand.
Incredibly, and in quite possibly a world first, Barbara and Michele lined up in national team colours together in 1987. The pair complemented each other as central defenders in a couple of appearances together for New Zealand.
“Michele was a very good player and has a lot more technique than me," Barbara acknowledged. "When we first played together [at club level] I did forget myself at first saying, ‘c’mon darling, pass me the ball’.”
Cox is understandably overjoyed by the unique opportunities that a Women’s World Cup on home soil will offer.
“The 2008 U-17 Women’s World Cup held in New Zealand changed peoples’ mindsets - mostly men's - that young women can play so well. And I think [in 2023] people will be shocked at how high the standard is.
"With the Women’s World Cups now being shown on TV in New Zealand, people are far more aware of the brilliance of a new generation of footballing super stars.
"Women’s football in New Zealand has been a massive growth sport over the last 10-15 years and for young girls and women to see their role models live in action means that 2023 is a fantastic opportunity to inspire them and grow the sport even further.
“Football is pretty much normalised now as a sport for women. It took a long time but I think the World Cup will take that to another level. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of money comes into women’s sport, both in Australia and New Zealand after this World Cup.
“I have always maintained that women can play as well as men, minus the power and speed. As a sports sociologist, that has always been my belief. We just didn’t have access to top-class trainers, top-class physical and mental training. Now women are training the same way as men and this is the result you get.”