Football Ferns Meikayla Moore and Emma Rolston are discovering just how challenging professional football can be, playing together in Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga. Simon Hampton paid them a visit.
Duisburg is an industrial hub in Germany’s north-west, where plumes of smoke form the city’s skyline. It’s home to Europe’s largest port, and in the depths of the northern winter, feels every bit like a gloomy city offering no incentive to deviate off the Autobahn.
It’s an unlikely destination for young Kiwi travellers, but it’s the city that two 22-year-old Football Ferns are calling home.
“It’s easy to stay focused [on football] because there’s nothing to do,” says Emma Rolston.
She and fellow Football Fern Meikayla Moore made the switch to Duisburg midway through last year.
While Moore took a short trip up the Rhine River from Cologne, where she played for FC Koln, this is Rolston’s first stint in Europe. She previously played for Sydney FC in Australia’s W-League, but this is her first professional contract.
The two players travel to nearby, more glamorous cities in their downtime but, for the most part, football keeps them occupied.
The club set the pair up with an apartment to share, and the two Kiwis – who have grown up together through New Zealand age-group sides – keep each other company and give each other space when they need it.
There are other English speakers in the team, but Moore and Rolston are tackling German lessons in an effort to make life a bit easier.
Homesickness can be a problem, particularly living in a place like Duisburg. But for a young footballer, Germany is the place to be.
The Frauen-Bundesliga, Germany’s premier women’s football league, is considered one of the top women’s club competitions in the world.
“[The Bundesliga] is up there for leagues for women at the moment, in terms of strength, physicality and pace,” Moore says.
Duisburg are experiencing just how tough that league is – winning just three of their 13 matches in the first half of the season, to sit in ninth place, four points above the relegation zone.
But, for two young New Zealand footballers, it’s invaluable experience playing against some of the world’s best.
“When you come up against teams like Wolfsburg or Bayern Munich, they’re technically outstanding. They love to play with the ball so it’s a really big challenge for us young Kiwi girls coming over here,” Moore says.
Moore, a defender, started 11 of Duisburg’s matches in the first half of the season, while striker Rolston was limited to just four matches off the bench, as shin splints hampered her progress.
“It’s been frustrating,” Rolston admits. “I wanted to come over here and challenge myself and make an impact, but I obviously haven’t been able to train or play to the best of my ability.
“Hopefully, in another three weeks of rehab that should be it, and I shouldn’t have any more pain.”
Rolston is having to deal with more frustration this week, after being left out of the Football Ferns squad for the inaugural Cup of Nations, to be played in Australia next month.
But she will no doubt be determined to fight her way back into the team before the Women’s World Cup in France, in June. She’ll be looking to get a run of games at Duisburg when the league resumes next month – after breaking over winter’s harshest months – to push her case for selection.
Rolston has battled back before. After she played at the U20 World Cup in 2014, she had a terrible run of injuries for two years, to her ankle, back and hamstrings. She played her first game for the Football Ferns last year, against Scotland in Spain.
Moore, with 31 international caps, was named in the 23-strong New Zealand squad who will play Australia, Argentina and Korea Republic. She scored her maiden goal for the Ferns in their dire 4-1 loss to Japan in Wellington last season.
This is a Ferns team of comebacks, with former captain Abby Erceg and former vice captain Katie Duncan coming out of retirement, while Emma Kete, Aimee Phillips and midfielder Daisy Cleverley also marking their returns to international football. Kete, a 31-year-old forward, was last in the Ferns squad in 2015.
The Football Ferns are a team trying to put some distance between the present and a disastrous 2018, when former coach Andreas Heraf left his position after widespread discontent amongst the camp.
Former USA women’s coach Tom Sermanni took charge of the side for the successful OFC Nations Cup campaign in Papua New Guinea in November, where the Football Ferns qualified for the World Cup.
“After that year, it’s been good with Tom coming in. There was definitely a change in the vibe of the group,” Rolston says. “I think everyone was a lot more relaxed and felt more confident in the space that we were in as a team.”
During that tour, the Football Ferns were inspired by watching the New Zealand U17s clinch an historic third placing at their World Cup.
“We were sitting round at breakfast watching, yelling at the screens. Everyone around us was getting so annoyed. They were all like ‘You’re in a restaurant, shut up!’” Rolston recalls.
“We were so proud of them; that achievement was amazing.”
The Football Ferns go into this year’s World Cup in France believing they can do something similar.
They’ll face a tough group of the Netherlands, Canada and Cameroon. The first two of those are top ten nations, while Cameroon are ranked 27 places below New Zealand, who are 19th in the world.
But, with potentially three teams qualifying for the knockout rounds, progression is a realistic aim .
“The Football Ferns have never got out of a group in a World Cup setting. That’s our first goal and, after that, anything is possible,” Moore says.
“We’re just really looking forward to this coming year and preparing as best we can with the time we have.”