If the Football Ferns make history on Sunday and become the first New Zealand team – women or men – to advance to the knockout stages at a FIFA World Cup, how far will they move the dial?

Some deep in the game reckon the Ferns’ first World Cup victory last week has already altered the landscape of football in New Zealand for the better.

More Kiwis are now aware of the New Zealand women’s football team, know players by name, and realise they’re competitive on the world stage. Fans have filled every stadium the Ferns have played in. And more girls – and boys – are already queueing up to play the beautiful game.

A strong finish would no doubt lead to more glittering overseas club contracts for our top players, or more invitations for New Zealand to play internationally. 

And a win over Switzerland in Dunedin on Sunday will double their prizemoney, too – every Football Fern receives $97,000 if they reach the round of 16. And NZ Football will collect $3m, which they’re determined not to squander.

Kids from The Football Girls programme watch a Women’s World Cup game at Eden Park. Photo: supplied. 

LockerRoom speaks to four women from different quarters of the game about how they see the Ferns’ success reverberating through the sport.

The original – Monique van de Elzen

It’s been more than three decades, but Monique van de Elzen finally feels proud to be a Football Fern who helped make World Cup history.

Van de Elzen, now 55, played an integral role in the New Zealand side at the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. The team lost all three of their games at that inaugural tournament in China, but scored their first goal, from the outstretched foot of former London double-decker bus driver Kim Nye. Van de Elzen, a midfielder with a magical left foot, set up Nye to score against the home nation (in a 4-1 loss).

Although it was a milestone for the Kiwis, they returned home to no fanfare. Van de Elzen retired straight afterwards.

It’s taken 32 years for the Football Ferns to claim their first World Cup win, but it’s stirred emotions for van de Elzen.

“I’ve kept quiet about it, but this World Cup being in New Zealand has really brought it to the fore. All of a sudden, people are asking ‘You used to play, didn’t you?’” the Auckland physio says. “So I’m feeling prouder of my soccer career; proud I played at a World Cup.”

So proud, she wore her special edition Football Ferns shirt with her cap #51 (made by her World Cup team-mate Wendi Henderson) to the US v Netherlands 1-1 draw on Thursday.

Football Fern #51 Monique van de Elzen in her custom-made NZ shirt. Photo: supplied. 

But van de Elzen had never been “so excited about a football match” than the Football Ferns’ unexpected 1-0 victory over Norway last week. And it’s sparked some interesting discussions.

“My 18-year-old son asked me ‘How do you think you’d go Mum? Are you good as those girls?’ And I said ‘Well, probably not – because those girls are fulltime footballers’,” she says. “We worked fulltime and worked our football training around that. We just didn’t have the conditioning these players have.

“The other thing I notice looking at the game today is they’re all very good all-round players. In my day, the forwards were tricky with the ball, the midfielders were hard grafters who could knock a ball well, and the fullbacks were great at tackling and wellying the ball up the pitch.

“You look at today’s Ferns and everyone can do all that. They have the skills and confidence to play it out. These girls are right up there in the world and they play bloody good football.”

Whether those women make it any further in this tournament, winning the opening game has already made “a massive difference” to the public’s perception of the team and women’s football, van de Elzen says.

“It’s already opened up possibilities for young girls who can see there’s a career option there. And if we get through to the next round, soccer will go off – particularly the women’s game.”

She reckons NZ Football need to look at the Black Ferns and what they’ve done since winning a home World Cup last year.

“Ruby Tui and a few other high-profile players have kept their public engagement high. It’s what the Football Ferns have to do, but it’s difficult because so many of our players play overseas,” says van de Elzen, who never got the opportunity to play professionally.

“We need more international games – but it’s a distance thing, it’s a money thing. Maybe now people will realise women’s soccer has a really big support base, and companies could invest more in the women’s game.”

The president – Johanna Wood

“I reckon when they won last week against Norway, it changed the landscape – not only for the Football Ferns, but for football in New Zealand.”

Johanna Wood, NZ Football president and FIFA Council member, is talking as she dashes between back-to-back World Cup games in Wellington and Hamilton.

“Some of the Football Ferns’ doubters realise they haven’t been sitting on their laurels, there was a plan in place, and they executed it,” she says.

“Now we need the crowd in Dunedin on Sunday to be as vocal as it was in Auckland. The crowd is the 12th player on the field for them.”

NZ Football president Johanna Wood greets FIFA president Gianni Infantino with a hongi during a pōwhiri in Auckland. Photo: FIFA via Getty Images. 

Interest in the Football Ferns has been unprecedented – 39 percent of Kiwis watched the first game of the World Cup and record crowds for women’s football have filled stadiums (the target figure of 1.5 million ticket sales was hit during the week).

Sunday’s clash at Dunedin Stadium has already sold out, and Wood is confident the Football Ferns can beat world No.20 Switzerland – unbeaten so far – and move to the next level.

“I really think they can do it. They just have to refocus and as Jitka [coach Jitka Klimková] would say, execute it,” says Wood.

Already, Wood is seeing kids lining up to play football for the first time.  

“It’s not just inspiring young girls. Some of the programmes running around the country that have been girls-only activations have had a lot of inquiries from little boys. And they’ve decided to open it up to them,” she says. “I think that’s great. It won’t be just girls’ football and just boys’ football – it will just be football.”

That equality still has some way to go in World Cup prizemoney – the winnings for women (US$110 million) are a decent increase from 2019, they’re still well short of the men’s purse (US$440 million at last year’s World Cup in Qatar).

But for playing in the group stages, every Football Fern will receive US$30,000 ($48,000). If they make it through to the round of 16, that doubles to $US60,000 ($97,000) and, dare we dream, the quarterfinals US$90,000 ($144,000).

NZ Football will prosper to the tune of $2.55m for a group stage finish, $3.05m for a top 16 placing.

Wood is aware it must be spent wisely, and NZ Football have already discussed strategic investment. “When you get an influx of money there’s a danger that you don’t ring fence it. The goal is to make sure it goes back into the game and back into development,” she says.

Nine days into the tournament, Wood says she’s proud to be part of it.

“It’s been an excellent tournament so far. None of the debutant nations have embarrassed themselves; we haven’t had any 13-0 scorelines; the goalies have been superb,” says Woods, highlighting Costa Rican keeper Daniela Solera, who on her birthday made 10 saves – including a penalty – against Spain, who won 3-0.

“I don’t know how these women are able to get up in the morning and walk. They’re all putting their bodies on the line.”

The next-gen – Manaia Elliott

The captain of the Junior Football Ferns, Manaia Elliott has watched this World Cup in awe – but also with a clear focus.

Elliott has just led her team to win the Oceania U19 championships, scoring two goals in the 7-0 final victory over host nation Fiji, and securing a spot at next year’s FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup.

And now the 18-year-old wide midfielder can see in person what she’s building towards – wearing the Football Ferns jersey at the game’s pinnacle event.

“I think it’s become a whole lot more realistic, now there’s a professional pathway in New Zealand,” says Elliott, who’s in the Wellington Phoenix Academy and plays for their reserves.

“A few years ago, it wasn’t so clear where you could go with your football – you definitely had to play abroad if you wanted to do well.

“With the Phoenix now having an environment up-and-coming female footballers can look to for their professional pathway, it’s definitely helped. And that leads to making a place in the Football Ferns a real target.”

Teenage footballer Manaia Elliott has captained both the NZ U17 and U19 sides. Photo: Getty Images. 

Elliott, who followed her brother into football growing up in Wanaka, was in the Wellington crowd with team-mates at the Football Ferns’ 1-0 loss to the Philippines on Tuesday night. “It was a bit disappointing they couldn’t follow up that first win, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for Sunday,” she says.

“I feel like they’ve come such a long way after watching them in some friendlies earlier this year – they’ve grown so much in the two months they were together in camp.”

Knowing she’s played with and against some of the Football Ferns in this tournament makes Elliott’s goal even more attainable.

She’s friends with young Ferns striker Milly Clegg – they played together at last year’s FIFA U17 World Cup in India – and she’s been a team-mate of Michaela Foster.

“And I think Jackie Hand has been incredible for the Ferns. I’ve never met or played against her before, but I think she and Indiah-Paige Riley – the two young wingers – have been awesome,” Elliott says.

Regardless of whether the Ferns make it through to the knockout stages, Elliott believes they’ve already stamped their mark on the game.

“The World Cup has raised so much interest, and brought attention to the fact women’s football is growing globally, I think it’s already started a movement here,” she says.

“The Football Ferns have shown New Zealand they really belong at that international level and they can win games. If they go further, and do what’s never been done by the men or the women before, it will really prove the women’s team aren’t just a side note.”

Elliott, who’s finishing her Year 13 studies by correspondence, is now focused on making it to next year’s U20 World Cup in Colombia and training with the Phoenix Women’s first team. “You’re just working as hard as you can to get noticed,” she says.

The initiator – Haley Gleeson

Haley Gleeson took 60 of her ‘Football Girls’ to Eden Park to watch Spain beat Zambia on Wednesday.

“We had kids as young as five there. They’re getting these incredible experiences – turning up to Eden Park, seeing people they play with, seeing Football Ferns they’ve met, seeing people’s passion for their countries,” she says.

“But my girls were asking ‘Why aren’t New Zealanders good at chants?’ Other than face paint and holding up signs, how are we being vocal and showing up for our country?”

Gleeson is the creator of The Football Girls programme in Auckland, where young girls are “celebrated for who they are” through the vehicle of football.

Football Fern Milly Clegg with young fan, Maia, 8, at Eden Park. Photo: supplied. 

Some of the Football Ferns – like Malia Steinmetz, Claudia Bunge and Milly Clegg – have been to their Sunday sessions. “For those girls to have that connection with players out on the field is pretty cool,” Gleeson says.

“I was never told, growing up, that I could be this; that I could play for my country. For our girls, whether it comes to fruition or not, at least they now know it’s possible.”

From that first Football Ferns victory, Gleeson has had an influx of interest from parents whose daughters want to get involved in football. “And if the Ferns get to the top 16, it’s just going to light more of a fire in everyone,” she says. “The people who’ve bagged the Ferns in the past are finally seeing how good they are. They’ve already made history.”

She hopes there will be a sizeable increase in investment in the women’s game that filters down to grassroots. “With girls’ football in New Zealand, if NZ Football and the clubs work together on putting something together to educate parents on how best to support girls in football, I think we can keep girls in the sport.”

* The Football Ferns meet Switzerland in Dunedin on Sunday at 6.45pm, live on Sky Sport 3 and free-to-air on Prime.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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