Betsy Hassett walks down the tunnel to a sold-out Eden Park. It’s a moment she’s been waiting for her whole life.

A global audience is watching, four million New Zealanders are behind the Football Ferns. But someone incredibly important to Hassett is missing.

It’s been 13 years since the Football Ferns midfielder lost her mum. She thinks about her every day.

“She was an amazing woman,” says Hassett, who’s played 142 internationals for New Zealand, the latest a 1-1 draw in a friendly with Iceland in Turkey over the weekend. 

“If she was still alive now, she would be at every single game and supporting me every minute,” Hassett says. “This World Cup she would’ve been there, so that’s pretty sad for me that she won’t be around for it. But I know she’ll be there in spirit.”

Hassett was 19, and had moved to America to take up a scholarship at the University of California,. But she was back home on a summer break when her mum passed away.

She had to return to the States and pretend that everything was okay.

Hassett had recently been selected in the Football Ferns squad for the first time – the support of the team got her through the hardest time in her life.

“They were like my second family and I was always looking forward to going on tour. I would meet them at different places all around the world and they would look after me,” she says. 

“I was so far from home, and I was going through a lot. They kept me wanting to play and got me through that rough time. I don’t know how I would have done it without them.”

Betsy Hassett loves training with the Football Ferns. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek

Hassett says her mum was a huge supporter of every part of her life.

“She wanted to see me doing what I love,” she says.

“She was a pretty crazy individual. She was very funny, and she taught me to just be myself – don’t try to be someone else. She inspired me a lot.”

Now Hassett and the Ferns are looking to inspire the next generation when New Zealand co-hosts the FIFA Women’s World Cup in July. 

A huge opportunity

The Football Ferns will play Norway, the Philippines and Switzerland as they look to make history at home. New Zealand has never won a game at a World Cup and never advanced to the Round of 16.

The Jitka Klimkova-coached team is focused on delivering a performance that makes New Zealand proud.

Hassett says one of their team goals is to be role models for the next generation of New Zealand girls.

“We know they are looking up to us and we want to show them that there is a path in football, and you can compete with the best,” she says. “We know we have a big opportunity with this tournament at home.”

They also know they have work to do.

Football Ferns captain Betsy Hassett leads her team onto the Eden Park pitch to play Argentina. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek

The Ferns have hosted the USA, Argentina, Portugal, and Korea Republic at home this year. From the seven games they lost six times and drew once.

“We were disappointed by how we performed on the last tour so we know that we have a lot to work on in the next three months,” says the Wellington Phoenix player.

“We know that we need to focus on scoring goals in particular. It’s an area where we really need to improve.  We all have to go away and wake up every day ready to work on all of the little things that will help us perform as a team.”

In Turkey over the weekend, the Football Ferns scored their first goal of the year, courtesy of a Hannah Wilkinson header, to draw 1-1 with Iceland. They will play Nigeria on Wednesday morning. 

In their second friendly against Argentina, Hassett was given the captain’s armband for the first time, which she calls a huge honour.

“My role has changed so much. I still feel like I am one of the young ones. But I am second or third oldest in the group now,” she says. “It’s a cool challenge to be a leader in our team and support others.”

During that game, Hassett was elbowed hard in her nose which caused a big gash.

“It wouldn’t stop bleeding, that’s why I was lying on the field for so long. It was broken, so I went to see the doctors about a week later and tried to have it straightened up. But it’s all okay now.”

The Football Ferns crowd around Betsy Hassett after she broke her nose against Argentina. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek

The toughest break of all

Hassett has had one major injury in her career. She was 17 playing in a preseason game for Auckland club Three Kings United against Eastern Suburbs.

“I even remember the girl who tackled me – her name was Sandy from Eastern Suburbs,” the born and bred Aucklander says with a laugh.

“We both dive-tackled at the same time and she came straight down onto my leg. Everyone heard the snap so it was an awful moment and I was in a lot of pain.”

The game was stopped and an ambulance took Hassett to hospital. It was the worst possible timing.

“I was just about to move to the United States for College. I was gutted. I did all of my rehab over there and it was a long process; it took me two years for me to get back to the same level.”

Hassett says her injury – even at a young age – gave her new perspective.

“My injury and recovery made me realise how important it is to look after your body. The more fit and healthy your body is the less likely it is you are going to be injured,” she says.

The Football Ferns perform the FIFA 11+ Warm Up – a key component of the Fit4Football programme – every time they train and play.

Betsy Hassett is one of a handful of current Football Ferns centurions. Photo: Shane Wenzlick/Phototek

The programme includes strength and conditioning components that protect players from injury in the short and long term.

“It’s important to do a dynamic warm-up so when it comes to training and playing you’re ready to go,” says Hassett. 

“Warming up is so important especially when you get a bit older – you really have to look after your body – so it’s good to form those good habits when you’re younger.”

The cost of football injuries 

Hassett says the personal cost of her injury was huge. She was in the United States and totally reliant on others.

“Everyday life was definitely a challenge,” she says. “The people around you are so important to get you through that period – your friends and teammates play a huge role in keeping you in the right headspace to stay positive.”

Hassett is not alone.  In 2022, ACC accepted 39,424 claims for football-related injuries. These came at a cost of $53 million to help people recover.

ACC invests in a partnership with New Zealand Football to deliver performance and injury prevention programme Fit4Football.

“There are some unique female specific considerations when it comes to reducing the risk of injury in sport,” says ACC injury prevention partner Nat Hardaker.

“NZ Football is doing some great work to ensure that injury prevention is an integral part of the game here in New Zealand.  This is critical to ensuring we can support everyone to keep playing and maximise their enjoyment of the game.

“FIFA 11+ is an evidence-based programme designed to prepare players for the demands of the game, it includes exercises that really target strength and control of the lower limb.”

Hassett encouraged all young football players to look after their bodies.

She started doing yoga around five years ago and it’s made a big difference.

“It has helped my body so much,” she says.  “I am still pretty flexible and I can run forever. Doing yoga regularly has kept my body flexible and that has helped me keep playing at a high level for a long time.

“I’d say to younger players, sleep well, eat the right food, don’t overtrain and keeping your life in balance is really important to performance and preventing injuries.”

The stage is set for Hassett and the Ferns to make history at the World Cup.  

* The Football Ferns play Nigeria at 1am on Wednesday, live on Sky Sport 1.

Peter Thornton is an experienced journalist and communications manager. He is a senior media advisor for ACC.

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