The Football Ferns are on the cusp of the biggest moment in their careers – a FIFA World Cup at home.
And one of their most experienced and best players, midfielder Ria Percival, has fought back from the worst injury of her career to help their chances.
It’s been a tough year, but Percival is focused on nothing but helping the team make history.
In April last year, Percival was sitting in a doctor’s surgery in North London, and she was not believing what she was hearing.
The Fern had flown home to the UK, where she plays for Tottenham Hotspurs Women in the WSL, after a devastating moment while playing against for NZ against Australia in Townsville.
In a tackle, Percival heard a pop noise and felt something go in her knee. She was writhing in pain and her first thought was she would miss the chance of a lifetime – to play in a World Cup at home.
MRI scans the following day showed she had ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and damaged her meniscus cartilage.
It got worse when she heard the prognosis from the surgeon in London.
“He said he’d never seen a meniscus that badly damaged before and he wasn’t sure he could fix it,” says the 33-year-old.
If the surgeon couldn’t fix it, then Percival would need a meniscus transplant three months later. It would have ruled her out of the World Cup and jeopardised her career.
“He said: ‘I’m not sure where this will leave you and if you will ever play again’.”
Percival’s mind was racing. The doctor continued talking but it all faded into the background like white noise.
“Hearing just how bad my injury was, was a massive shock to the system.”
After the meeting, Percival called her Spurs physio and broke down in tears.
“Football is my life and to hear that I could potentially never play again, that was devastating.”
But the surgeon gave it a go and, in the end, worked wonders. He repaired the meniscus and ACL. The first step of her comeback was complete and there was hope.
The long road to recovery
It took Percival 12 months to fully recover.
Following surgery, she couldn’t weight-bear for 12 weeks and was on crutches and reliant on others to get by in everyday life. She didn’t have a flatmate and tried to work out a system to be independent at home.
“I would skateboard my food, drinks and ice around the house,” she laughs at the memory.
Percival couldn’t bend her leg past a range from 60 to 90 degrees and everything was hard.
“It was in that time when I thought: ‘I’m not going to be able to do this. I didn’t know if I was ever going to be the same player again’.”
Percival took her recovery one step at a time – literally.
She learned how to walk again. The Essex-born player (she grew up in West Auckland, attending Green Bay High School (Titirangi) and playing for Lynn Avon AFC growing up) was at times the first person in the Spurs gym in the morning and the last to leave in the evening as she fully committed to her rehab.
“I had to fight to stay positive and focused on what I could control each day. Having the support of friends and family was massive. It got me through it and kept me thinking about the World Cup.”
One of the highlights of my career
Percival has experienced more than most in her illustrious career.
She has been to four Olympic Games, and this will be her fifth World Cup. She has played more than 160 internationals for New Zealand since making her debut in 2006 – the most of any player (male or female).
She is the only New Zealander to have played in an FA Cup Final at Wembley (for West Ham in 2019) and the only New Zealander to have played in a Champions League Final (for Frankfurt in 2012).
She rates her comeback – or more specifically the moment when she finally got back on the pitch to train with the girls – as one of the highlights of her career.
“After such a serious injury and having doubt around whether I would play again, to be back was unbelievable,” she says.
Percival walked onto the pitch and all of her Spurs’ team-mates stopped. They cheered and clapped the New Zealander.
“It was an emotional moment,” she says. “I couldn’t have been happier.” She played her first game back on April 30.
“We’ve lost our identity”
Percival says one of the hardest parts of her rehabilitation was watching the Football Ferns from the other side of the world and being unable to help the team.
The Jitka Klimkova-coached team have struggled in the lead up to the World Cup – they have lost eight out of their past 10 internationals. Percival says they need to regroup.
“We need to get back to what we used to be,” says the veteran, who has earned the right for an honest opinion.
“We used to be hard to beat, we didn’t concede many goals because we put our bodies on the line and we worked hard for each other. We had grit.
“We have lost our identity in the last few years. We have some young players who are now making a difference. We have three tough games. We know we have a lot of work to do in becoming more connected as a team.”
Percival says the team has to take advantage of this opportunity.
“We’ve got to get out of the group. We have to make history. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we want to get that reward for all of the years of commitment to the team.
“This is our chance to inspire the next generation of girls around New Zealand.”
“Your body is your temple”
Percival wants to inspire the next generation with not only performance but injury prevention.
“I know from my experience, the cost of a serious injury is huge.”
In 2022, ACC accepted nearly 40,000 claims for football-related injuries.
A review of ACL reconstructions saw the greatest increase in females aged 15-19 years, with the rate of reconstructions increasing by 120 percent between 2009 – 2019.
“It is so important to listen to your body,” says Percival.
“Too often we try to push through things and don’t listen to our bodies. Your body is your temple. You need to look after it so you can perform and play the game for a long time. Make sure every time you take the pitch you are physically and mentally ready for that challenge.”
Percival and the Ferns perform the 11+ warm up every time they train and play.
To help prevent injuries, ACC partners with New Zealand Football to deliver the NZF Performance and Prevention programme.
“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 says.
“We work with NZ Football to ensure injury prevention is an integral part of the game here. This is critical as it means we can support everyone to keep playing and maximise their enjoyment of the game.
“The 11+ warm up 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 limbs.”
Percival has completed a remarkable comeback. She is ready to help the Ferns to make history.
What is the NZF Performance and Prevention programme?
· It is a player welfare and prevention programme for our everyday athletes.
· It provides support mechanisms for enhancing player performance, injury prevention, and wellbeing.
· The 11+ warm up is an evidence-based programme designed to prepare players for the demands of the game. It includes exercises that target strength and control of the lower limbs
A study published by the British Medical Journal in 2008 found that teams performing this warm up at least twice a week had 37 percent fewer training injuries and 29 percent fewer game injuries. Severe injuries – such as tearing your ACL – reduced by almost 50 percent.
Find out more here