Goal-scoring weapon Grace Jale is making an impact in the Football Ferns after a four-year pause in her international career. And breaking out of her comfort zone may help her to play in a home World Cup this year, Merryn Anderson writes.
On her days off, Grace Jale isn’t fazed by driving a five-hour round trip from Canberra to Wollongong, just to spend time on the beach.
Auckland born and raised, and a big fan of the summer sun, it’s the only drawback Jale sees in her decision to play her football in land-locked Canberra in this season’s A-League Women’s competition. So why did she make the move across the Tasman?
“It was a change I needed because having the same coaches and players around you for years and years, I wanted a clean slate,” says the 23-year-old midfield and forward, who was the Phoenix women’s top goalscorer in their debut season.
This is the year Jale really wants to make her mark, and cement her place in the Football Ferns to contest their home FIFA Women’s World Cup in July.
The chance to play in a senior World Cup would mean everything to Jale, who’s bounced back from a four-year absence from the New Zealand side.
“I don’t think I would have dreamed of having a World Cup at home even, I just didn’t think that would be in reach,” the Fijian-Kiwi says. “For that to be a possible opportunity, it’s a dream come true.”
Jale was the young girl who’d be in front of the TV watching football instead of doing her homework.
Having started playing football as an eager seven-year-old, she had a fairytale start to her international career. She was first called into the Football Ferns as a 16-year-old, in Year 11 at Mt Albert Grammar, in 2015.
Over the next three years, Jale played in three World Cups – once for the New Zealand U17s and twice for the U20 side. And she finally made her debut for the Football Ferns in 2018 against Tonga in the OFC Women’s Nations Cup, scoring a goal as the Ferns won 11-0.
But after that tournament, two ankle reconstructions and concussions kept her out of contention for Football Ferns selection.
“That was a bit rough. I got a bit of FOMO just looking in from the outside,” says Jale of her four years away from the national team.
But then an unexpected opportunity – and a challenge – presented itself. Jale started her senior career at the Wellington Phoenix last season, the team spending their time in Wollongong, unable to play at home due to lockdowns and travel restrictions.
It was a young, largely inexperienced team, with Jale one of the more experienced players at just 22.
The Phoenix won only two of their games, and finished at the bottom of the table, but it’s an experience Jale is grateful for.
“It’s opened up a lot of new doors,” she says. “It was intense at times, but we kind of had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Towards the end of the season, I started getting some goals and feeling a bit more confident.”
Making her return to the national squad was a big goal for Jale, and Football Ferns coach Jitka Klimková set her a challenge.
“Jitka was on my case while I was in the Phoenix and she was demanding goals and good performances,” Jale says. “So I had to pull through and I was lucky enough to get called in [to the Football Ferns] again.”
Jale was the top goalscorer for the Phoenix last season, scoring six of their 13 goals.
She knew a lot of the Phoenix players, having played with them at U17 and U20 World Cups, and had also worked with coach Gemma Lewis for years.
So at the end of the season, Jale decided to break out of her comfort zone and made the move to Canberra United.
“Canberra kind of stuck out to me – my coach Njegosh [Popovich] was really, really gunning for me which was nice,” Jale says. “I think it’s been a good change.”
Canberra currently sit fifth on the A-League Women’s table, Jale scoring in their first two games.
“I was quite nervous coming into a new team of people I didn’t really know. But there were the big names like Grace Maher, Michelle Heyman, Ellie Brush that a lot of players would rave about and the coach would rave about too,” Jale says.
“The team was really welcoming so I fit right in quite nicely I think.”
“When I first came in, I was a nervous wreck, in my little hermit crab shell.”
In January, the Football Ferns played in Auckland and Wellington against the world number one side, the USA. The Eden Park game broke the record for the most fans at a Football Ferns match, with 12,721 people attending.
Jale says the experience to play the world’s best at home was almost indescribable.
“We were talking before the games how we never have games in New Zealand and for it to be in Auckland, my home town and in front of a record breaking crowd, it was amazing,” she says.
“To have my family there, my friends there, little girls that I coached, and parents and coaches from old teams, there was awesome. And to be starting against the world champions, it was incredible.”
With the two games played outside the FIFA window, club teams weren’t required to release their players for international duties, so the Ferns were without some of their key names.
They’re back in the squad now, for what may be the last preparation before the World Cup begins in July – three friendlies against Portugal and Argentina.
“Now everyone’s here, there’s a lot of competition for spots. But just being a part of the squad is good enough for me,” says Jale, who has 12 Football Ferns caps, and two goals.
“I’m happy that I get to train in such a professional environment and with all these professional players, so I can learn as much as I can. Game time would be great, but I’m not expecting anything, I’m just trying to do my best and show what I can do.”
The Ferns had a day to forget on Friday evening, losing to Portugal 5-0. Jale came on in the 65th minute, making an impact in attack, but the Ferns were too far down to fight back.
Grace Jale (centre) and good friend Liv Chance (left) in camp in Hamilton this week.
Jale says having all available players back lifts the standard in camp.
“It’s more intense but it’s still lots of fun, a safe environment. Everyone’s just trying to help each other be better for the team to be better.”
She’s also grateful to have Liv Chance in the squad, one of her closest friends in the team.
“She’s a similar position to me and she’s like my guardian angel,” Jale says.
“When I first came in, I was a nervous wreck, in my little hermit crab shell. But she took me under her wing and is teaching me a lot and is always there for a chat.”
Jale says Rebekah Stott is also someone she can go to for advice, and roommate Indiah-Paige Riley says Jale is the “listener”, and anyone can go to her for advice.
And if it’s advice to ignore your homework and watch football instead, it might pay off like it has for Jale.
*The Football Ferns play Argentina tonight in Hamilton, with kick off at 7pm, and screens live on Sky Sport 2. Thursday’s game is played in Auckland, also live on Sky Sport 2 from 7pm.