Story: Football

Football – ‘the beautiful game’ – is known for bringing together players of many nationalities. In New Zealand its popularity has come to rival that of rugby.

Story by Neill Atkinson, Steve Watters and Alida Shanks
Main image: Wynton Rufer playing for New Zealand

Story summary

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Basic play

Association football, sometimes called soccer, is traditionally a winter game played on a large field. Two teams, each of 11 players, try to score goals by kicking or heading a ball into the rival team’s goal. The goal is protected by the goalkeeper – the only player allowed to use their hands on the ball

Smaller-scale versions of the game include futsal, indoor football and beach soccer.

Men’s club and provincial football

The New Zealand Football Association (NZFA) was established in 1891. By the mid-1920s New Zealand had 460 football clubs. The country’s best-known annual club competition, the Chatham Cup, was first held in 1923.

Canterbury and Otago played the first recorded provincial match at Lancaster Park in 1890. The provinces began to compete annually, at first for the NZFA’s Brown Shield, then for the Football Association Trophy.

In 2004 a new summer competition was introduced – the New Zealand Football Championship.

Men’s international football

New Zealand played its first international matches in 1904. In 1922 it won its first test series against Australia. This early supremacy didn’t last. By 2022 New Zealand had won just 13 out of 66 matches against its trans-Tasman rivals.

The New Zealand men’s team made its first appearance in the FIFA World Cup finals in 1982. The team was nicknamed ‘the All Whites’ and the name stuck. They made it to the World Cup finals again in 2010.

New Zealand age-grade teams have had success at the Olympics and FIFA Under-20 and Under-17 World Cups

Women’s club and provincial football

Women played football casually in New Zealand from 1915 or earlier. Organised football for women emerged after the First World War, with clubs formed in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Women’s football struggled in the mid-20th century, but regained momentum in the 1970s. A national tournament was held annually from 1976, and in 2002 was succeeded by the National Women’s Soccer League.

Women's international football

The women’s national team, known at first as the Swanz and later as the Football Ferns, had most success on the world stage in the 1970s.

Australia and New Zealand co-hosted the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Professional players

For many years, New Zealand footballers who wanted to make a living from the game had to play abroad. At first they mainly went to Britain, but since the 1980s a number of Kiwis, both men and women, have found success in Europe and the United States.

Wynton Rufer, New Zealand’s greatest male footballer, had a successful career playing in Germany. Abby Erceg, New Zealand’s most-capped female footballer, has played in Germany and the USA.

In the 21st century, the men’s and women’s A-Leagues, based in Australia, have provided professional opportunities closer to home.

How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson, Steve Watters and Alida Shanks, 'Football', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Neill Atkinson, Steve Watters and Alida Shanks, published 5 September 2013, reviewed & revised 7 June 2023 with assistance from Alida Shanks