Despite a tough start to the Phoenix’s second season, evergreen Football Fern Betsy Hassett has no regrets returning to finally play professional football at home, she tells Merryn Anderson.
After 14 years playing in the United States, Germany, England, Norway, the Netherlands and Iceland, Betsy Hassett is finally home.
The 32-year-old Football Fern is one of the big names recruited for the Wellington Phoenix in their second season in the A-League Women’s competition.
“I’ve always dreamt of having this team in New Zealand so I could come home and play and it’s taken years and years and years,” Hassett says.
Hassett is the fourth most capped New Zealand football player of all time, with 137 internationals for the Football Ferns since making her debut in 2008, while she was in her final year at Auckland’s Avondale College.
After graduating, she took up a football scholarship at the University of California, where she studied and played for four years.
“After that, there was nowhere else to go and play really, besides overseas. I couldn’t come home if I wanted to improve, so just ended up staying overseas,” says Hassett, whose picked up experience at Manchester City, Ajax, Werder Bremen and Stjarnan – her club in Iceland for the last three seasons.
Since 2017, Iceland has become Hassett’s second home, working at a kindergarten for the last two years alongside playing football.
The kids at the kindergarten also help Hassett with her Icelandic – she’s not yet fluent, but can get by.
The women’s Wellington Phoenix team were established last season, but spent the entire four-month season living in Australia, due to travel restrictions.
It was a tough rookie season for the Phoenix, who won two, drew one and finished bottom of the table. This season they’ve been boosted by the signing of three experienced Ferns – Hassett, Paige Satchell and Emma Rolston.
But with a few injuries to key players, including captain and goalkeeper Lily Alfeld, the Phoenix haven’t had an ideal start, with a second 4-1 loss on Saturday against competition newcomers Western United. For the second time, they had been level-pegging at halftime, but struggled in the second half.
A new season, though, has meant their first home games, with 5213 fans packing out Wellington’s Sky Stadium for their round one match – breaking the record for the biggest crowd at a standalone regular season match in the history of the women’s A League.
“It was amazing, such an incredible experience, and an awesome crowd,” Hassett says.
The score was 0-0 at half-time, but a quick run of goals from Melbourne City saw them win 4-1 – a late goal from Ava Pritchard was a little consolation for the home side.
Despite the loss, Hassett loved the experience of her first game in the yellow and black.
“It was fantastic to have so much support around us,” she says. “It was so much fun to play the first professional game for the Phoenix in New Zealand, I loved it. We created history.
“A couple of my best friends came down from Gisborne and Tauranga and my boyfriend’s here from Iceland, and there were a lot of old friends, too.”
As one of the top 10 goalscorers in Football Ferns history (with 14 goals), Hassett is keen to find the back of the net for the Phoenix this season. Her experience is massive for this young team too – she’s played in three Olympic Games, including scoring the Ferns’ sole goal in their 6-1 loss to the United States at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Hassett didn’t know a lot of the upcoming Kiwi stars in the Phoenix side, having been overseas for so long. “But I’m really enjoying getting to know the younger girls,” she says.
“It’s really cool to get to play with them and hopefully inspire a lot of young girls in New Zealand, because they can now look up to us. Now there’s something for them to strive for, which is so exciting.”
Hassett says it feels “weird” to be finally lining up in a Kiwi team, “but it’s so much fun. It’s really nice to be home and be around the New Zealand food and Kiwi culture again.”
Hassett’s stats from the Phoenix’s first game of the season.
There are a handful of Football Ferns scattered around various A-League teams, and Hassett enjoyed the match-up against Kiwi Katie Bowen in their opening game against Melbourne City.
“I think every game we’ll match up against someone else different on the Ferns,” she says. “And it’s good to get connected with each other again and have some good battles out on the field – and it’s nice for us to all be a bit closer to home.” Especially with the home FIFA Women’s World Cup on the near horizon.
The Football Ferns have five friendlies scheduled at home in January and February next year, including two against world No.1, the US.
Their two games against Korea Republic earlier this month were their first games in New Zealand in four years, and Hassett is a firm believer in the home advantage.
“I could even feel it at the Phoenix game last week. We had so much crowd support, and just hearing the crowd behind us gave super advantage to the home team,” she says.
With the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicking off at Auckland’s Eden Park in July next year, home support is key for the Football Ferns, Hassett acknowledges.
Over 40,000 fans sold out Eden Park for the Black Ferns at the final of the Rugby World Cup, and Hassett believes the Football Ferns can garner the same interest.
“We’re hoping we could have the same support with us next year,” she says.
“I think having lots of games with the Football Ferns at home over the coming months, we can create that fan base behind us. That would be really awesome for us.”
Hassett admits being overseas for 14 years, away from family and friends, has been incredibly difficult, but she’s grateful for the opportunities football has given her.
“I’ve had such a good time though, travelling the world and seeing different places and meeting different people,” she says.
“But it was hard at times, just being so far away and missing my family and friends and trying to figure out how to live a life away from home.”
So that makes a home World Cup even more special for Hassett.
“It’s incredible, I’m so happy that it’s able to happen in my career, I would never have dreamt of it,” she says. “It’s the biggest event in the world, so it’s something that’s going to be really special and create lots of memories for a lifetime.”