Michele Cox wears a delicate medal around her neck. A reminder of an important era in her footballing past.
But it came so close to being lost forever in an Auckland rubbish dump.
The medal washed up while I was visiting Cox – who I’ve known since 1989 – at the Mt Eden home she grew up in and now shares with her mum, Barbara.
The pair are legendary for being the first mother and daughter in the world to play together in a football international – back in 1987, in New Zealand’s only win over the United States. Michele went on to be counted as one of New Zealand’s football greats – a trailblazer for Kiwi women wanting to play professionally overseas.
These two Football Ferns were showing me where floodwaters, mixed with sewage, had risen to in the garage under their house during the Auckland Anniversary floods back in January. The water reached 2m high, swamping both their cars.
Very little in the garage was salvageable – including much of the memorabilia they’d collected in their sporting careers. They were heartbroken, but pragmatic.
Then Michele spotted a small green box on a table outside the garage. “Why is this here, Mum?” she asked. “Oh, it’s going in the skip bin,” Barbara replied.
Michele Cox opened the box and out flowed a wave of memories. The elegant silver scroll, entwined with gold leaves, represented one of the best times in her life – when as a naïve 19-year-old, she’d gone to Germany to play football for top club TSV Siegen.
The pendant was a keepsake from the two German Cup titles Cox won with the team; a tiny replica of the winners’ trophy. Cox was part of unforgettable finals in 1988 and ’89, played in the Berlin Olympic Stadium in front of tens of thousands of fans.
Unfortunately, its sister medal had already been tossed out in the first skip bin of flotsam.
“But that’s okay,” says Cox. “I put things in boxes and forget about them. But when I saw the green case, I knew exactly what it was.
“It means a lot to me – not just about winning two German Cup finals with the best team in Germany, with women who’d become the best coaches in the world. But it also reminds me of Germany’s reunification, and how happy the people were.”
Cox would go on to play for the Football Ferns for 11 years. She then worked for football giants FIFA and UEFA, and Prince Ali bin El Hussain of Jordan, running his foundation to grow the game in Asia and helping overturn a ban on Muslim women wearing hijab on the football pitch.
She also drove the successful bid to have the inaugural FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup in 2008 played in New Zealand. Since she’s been back home, Dr Cox has lectured in advanced sport development at AUT, helped New Zealand Cricket grow female participation, and been CEO of the New Zealand Football Federation.
Now she’s focusing on being an author. She wrote Murdering Middle Age with fellow Football Fern Maia Jackman last year, and she’s just re-launched two books in her ‘Sammy’ trilogy, written for kids and based loosely on her own experiences as a young girl playing football, and those of other players she knew.
Cox grew up playing for the Eden Football Club, the club grounds right next door to her house. The club was famous for hosting visiting English premier teams – Manchester United had a disco there in 1975 after beating Auckland 2-0.
In fact, most of the flooding that poured into the Cox’s driveway and garage came from the football field, where the aging drains were too small to cope with the unprecedented deluge.
Cox has saved a scrapbook from her early football years, and found the first story I wrote about her for the New Zealand Herald in 1989. She was in the West German city of Siegen then, working in a sausage factory every morning before training with the club. I always remember her telling me she smelled of liverwurst.
She’d made quite an impression on German scouts while playing for New Zealand at the World Women’s Invitation tournament in Taiwan – a big deal in the days before there was an official FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was at that tournament the Cox mother-and-daughter duo made world football history, while playing together in defence in their 1-0 win over the United States.
Michele studied German at Epsom Girls Grammar and sparked up a conversation with the West German players at the tournament, saying she’d love to play in Germany. Five months later, she was signed up by the star TSV Siegen club – arriving near the end of the 1988 season.
“My first German Cup final was only three weeks after I arrived. The first game I played was the semifinal against Frankfurt and I scored a hat-trick,” Cox recalls of the 4-0 win.
“We had an incredible team – six German players including the captain, Silvia Neid. She won the World Cup and Olympic gold as captain, and then again as the coach of Germany. That was the calibre of players, and then there was me – just 19 years old.”
Her second game was the German Cup final, against Bayern Munich, played in Berlin’s iconic Olympic Stadium, built for the 1936 Olympic Games.
“I can totally relate to the Black Ferns when they couldn’t hear their team-mates at the World Cup final. I was in a stadium with 72,000 people and I could not hear a thing,” Cox says.
“I was completely overwhelmed in that first final. You come from a country where you have three dads and a dog on the sideline, and three weeks later you’re playing in front of 70,000.”
Siegen won 4-0, with Neid scoring a hat-trick. One of her goals was voted Tors de Monats – the German goal of the month. “It was the first time ever a woman won – up against all the men in the Bundesliga,” Cox recalls. “She scored a volley 15 metres out from the corner and everyone voted for her – that’s equity, right?
“The Germans were so far ahead of everyone else back then. They played double headers of the mens’ and women’s cup finals – so crowds were exposed to women’s football. Now they can go out on their own, they don’t need the men to generate crowd support.”
A year later, Siegen won both the German League and the German Cup – beating Frankfurt, 5-1, in the final.
Not long after, Cox was there to witness the Berlin Wall coming down. “There’s a photo of me with streamers all over my head. It was a beautiful time,” she says.
Cox still keeps in contact with many of the women from the Siegen side, who took the young Kiwi under their wing.
In 1998, as a Football Fern, Cox toured the Netherlands, Germany and the United States. She was then Michele McCahill, having married All Black Bernie McCahill.
“We turn up in Germany and were sitting having lunch with the German team, and Silvia Neid was the assistant German coach then,” Cox says. “She had no idea who Michele McCahill was, but when I walked over to her and she recognised me, we jumped around the room like little girls.”
That same celebration happened again at the 2011 World Cup, when Neid was the German head coach and Cox was on the FIFA committees for women’s football and the Women’s World Cup.
Neid helped form one of the main characters in Cox’s ‘Sammy’ books, and Sammy’s best friend, Kelly, is based on another of Cox’s great football friends, Kelly Simmons – who announced last week she’s leaving the FA – England’s Football Association – after more than 30 years driving the growth of the women’s game in England.
“The Sammy books are loosely based on stories from my background,” says Cox, who played all of her childhood football with boys.
“When I went to Auckland United to launch the books, I talked two little girls, aged five and seven, and it was their first time having anything to do with football. They said they’d been scared all week, but they turned up and it was really fun.
“That’s what Sammy and the Shooting Stars is all about – that anxiety for kids around sport. That wasn’t me when I was little, I went out and tried everything. But if it was me now, I’d be anxious because I don’t want to get injured, I’m too slow. So I get it.”
The book also addresses bullying and overcoming that with the help of team-mates.
“The second book, Way to Play Sammy, is set in the same season, when she does well but gets a bit arrogant – she becomes a bit of a dick, which most of us athletes have done in our time. She gets dealt some lessons and comes back to be a team player,” Cox says.
When Cox rediscovered the German Cup medal, we talked about getting it made into necklace. She took it to Areias Jewellers in Mt Eden, who repaired some corrosion from the floodwaters, and put it on a chain.
Cox now keeps it close to her heart; this one won’t end up at the tip.
* Cox’s books, Sammy and the Shooting Stars and Way to Play Sammy, (Clean Slate Press), are available in bookstores nationwide.