Association football, or soccer, is the world’s most popular team sport, and according to a 2011 survey it is the most popular sport among New Zealanders aged between 5 and 18.
Football is contested between two teams of 11 players. Each team has a goalkeeper who is the only player allowed to use hands on the ball during open play. Players attempt to work together to kick or head a spherical ball into the opposing team’s goal.
It is traditionally a winter sport played on a large, rectangular grass field. However, various forms of casual, indoor or beach soccer, usually involving smaller sides, are played all year round. The game’s rules and requirements in terms of equipment and facilities are comparatively simple, which may help explain its extraordinary global appeal.
The modern game owes its rules – and names – to the Football Association founded in England in 1863. ‘Soccer’, although often dismissed as an Americanism, is a 19th-century English name derived from the word ‘association’.
New Zealand origins
From the mid-19th century British seafarers, soldiers and settlers introduced various forms of football to New Zealand. In the absence of organised competitions, players and even clubs often switched between association football, rugby union, Victorian (Australian) rules and Gaelic football, or played hybrid forms.
Early team sizes varied and it is not always clear from reports which game was being played, or even what shape the ball was. During its marathon 1888–89 tour of Britain and Australia the New Zealand Native rugby team played nine matches under Victorian rules and two under association rules.
The Wellington Football Association was formed in 1890 and the following year ran its first championship. It was contested by four clubs and won by Petone. Facilities were primitive. English migrant Harry Power recalled an 1894 visit to ‘the old Thorndon Recreation ground to see Diamond and Thorndon in action on a hard piece of turf with a concrete pitch in the centre … every time [the ball] hit the cottages it was a throw-in.’1
Regular association football matches can be traced to the early 1880s. The Canterbury Association Football Club organised its first game in April 1882, and played under association rules against Christ’s College and local rugby teams.
Devonport’s North Shore club was founded in 1886 and is widely recognised as the country’s oldest surviving club. By mid-1887 Auckland had 13 clubs. The New Zealand Football Association (NZFA) was established in Wellington in 1891.
First international matches
New Zealand played its first international matches in 1904. In 1922 it won the first ‘test’ series against Australia, beginning a long, familiar rivalry.
By the mid-1920s football boasted 460 clubs – second only to rugby’s 670. It had around 6,000 players, making it New Zealand’s third-most popular men’s team sport after rugby and cricket. However, in the middle of the century, rugby union began to dominate as the country’s leading winter sport, and the round-ball code was increasingly eclipsed.
The NZFA joined the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in 1948, and was a founder member of the Oceania Football Confederation in 1966. In a highly professional, mass-participation sport dominated by big European and South American nations, New Zealand struggled to make any impact on the international stage.
On the rise
From the 1970s a number of factors helped raise football’s profile in New Zealand. They included the establishment of a national league, strong growth in playing numbers – especially in women’s and children’s football – and the successful 1982 World Cup qualification campaign by the national men’s team, the All Whites.
Even so, the high visibility of British migrants in the All Whites, as well as in the game’s administration and domestic club scene, attracted negative comments. That changed over the following decades as the face of football became increasingly Kiwi.
According to a 2007–8 survey 5.5% of all New Zealanders aged 16 or above (more than 185,000 people) played outdoor football, with a further 73,000 playing indoors. Of those who played outdoors, more than a quarter were female and 44% were aged over 35.
More popular than ever
The early 21st century saw football’s popularity in New Zealand reach an all-time high. It was buoyed by the All Whites’ spirited appearance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the presence of the Wellington Phoenix club in Australia’s A-League, an increasing number of high-profile Kiwi-born professional players and extensive live television coverage of glamorous English and European competitions.
The NZFA is now known as New Zealand Football. It represents around 500 clubs in seven member federations, and fields eight national teams competing in various FIFA men’s, women’s, age group, indoor and outdoor competitions.
The real strength and potential of New Zealand football lay not just in its gradually improving elite performances, but in its burgeoning grassroots following. The game’s broad appeal – among men and women, adults and children, different ethnic groups, and serious and social participants – was arguably unmatched by any other sport in New Zealand.