The New Zealand Football Association (NZFA) was founded in 1891, making it one of the country’s oldest national sporting bodies. Local club competitions emerged in the main centres early in the 1890s and in Hawke’s Bay, Southland, Taranaki and Whanganui before the First World War.
Canterbury and Otago played the first recorded provincial match at Lancaster Park in May 1890, drawing a crowd of 5,000. From 1892 these provinces, joined by Auckland and Wellington, competed annually for the NZFA’s Brown Shield. This was decided at a tournament or, from 1909, by a challenge system.
In 1926 a new Football Association Trophy became the symbol of provincial supremacy. This was contested, mostly under a challenge system, until 1967. Meanwhile the Brown Shield became a minor association trophy, played for until the 1990s.
In addition 15 inter-island matches were played between 1920 and 1967.
The Chatham Cup
New Zealand football’s best-known club competition is the Chatham Cup. This knockout tournament has been held every year since 1923 except 1937 and 1941–44.
The trophy – a replica of the English FA Cup – was presented to the NZFA in 1922 by the captain and crew of the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Chatham, which was ending its tour of duty in New Zealand waters. The first final was held at Wellington’s Athletic Park in October 1923, when Seacliff (Otago) defeated Wellington YMCA 4–0.
Until 1970 the competition was organised on a geographical basis, with local, regional and then North Island and South Island finals deciding the national finalists. Today the early rounds are still contested on a regional basis.
The most successful clubs in Chatham Cup history to 2018 were Auckland’s Mount Wellington (later University–Mount Wellington) with seven wins, and Christchurch United, North Shore and Auckland's Eastern Suburbs with six wins each.
Despite the dominance of big-city clubs, the cup has also found its way to Hamilton (1962 and 1988), Nelson (1977), Gisborne (1987), Napier (1985, 1993, 2000 and 2002) and Wairarapa (2011). Steve Sumner holds the individual record with six cup wins: four with Christchurch and one with each of Manurewa and Gisborne.
A feature of early Chatham Cup finals was the prominence of occupationally based clubs, including Harbour Board (Auckland), Hospital (Porirua), Tramways (Auckland) and Waterside (Wellington). Their ranks were often bolstered by British migrants. Among the more memorable finalists were 1931 winners Tramurewa (a combination of Tramways and Manurewa) and the Millerton All Blacks (Buller), runners up in 1932 and 1933. The 1934 final was played between two clubs with the same name – Thistle (from Auckland and Canterbury).
From 1923 the Chatham Cup was New Zealand’s only national club competition for four decades. After a brief experiment in 1962–63 – when the local club champions from Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago clashed for the Rothmans Cup – an eight-club National League was launched in 1970. Auckland’s Blockhouse Bay were the first champions.
The National League flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s, expanding to 12 teams by 1977 and often drawing 5,000 to 10,000 spectators to a match. Mount Wellington and Christchurch United shared 12 of the 23 titles decided between 1970 and 1992, with Gisborne City (1983) and Napier City Rovers (1989) the only winners from outside Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
The competition struggled in the late 1980s as sponsorship difficulties and falling attendances stretched clubs’ finances. The National League’s demise in 1992 ushered in a decade of uncertainty.
A regional Superclub Championship (with national play-offs) was succeeded by a National Summer Soccer League, then North and South Island leagues (again with a play-off), and finally a new National Club Championship. Between 1993 and 2003 these competitions were dominated by Napier City Rovers and Waitakere City (each with three titles), along with Auckland’s Central United and Wellington’s Miramar Rangers (each with two).
The franchise era
In 2004/5 the top level of domestic football was transformed by the introduction of a new summer competition. The New Zealand Football Championship was contested not by clubs but by eight regional or city ‘franchises’. In its first nine seasons this competition, known from 2011 as the ASB Premiership, was won four times by Auckland City and five times by Waitakere United.
Since 2007 the top two New Zealand teams have competed in the Oceania Champions League (or ‘O-League’), which has also been dominated by Auckland and Waitakere. Victory in that competition in turn provides entry into the lucrative Fédération Internationale de Football Association Club World Cup. In 2014 Auckland City defied expectations by beating more-fancied African and Central American clubs to finish third in the latter tournament.