Women played football in Britain from at least 1881, and there are reports of women playing ‘carnival’ games in New Zealand as early as 1915. As with many female sports, however, its participants struggled to gain recognition, media coverage or equal access to facilities. New Zealand women’s football has made enormous strides in recent decades.
In 1921 Christchurch doctor Maud Frere considered ‘the fact of women taking up football one of the most hopeful signs of the times.’ She ‘knew of no game more calculated to restore the wasted vital muscles … provided, of course, the player is properly garbed’ – meaning ‘no constricting bands around the waist, as in the ordinary skirt bands’ and ‘no pressure on the soft abdominal muscles, as is always induced by a corset busk’.1
Club and provincial competition
Organised football for women emerged after the First World War, with clubs formed in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in 1921. In the capital the Aotea Ladies’ Club reportedly made good progress in its first season, despite being banned from using city council grounds. The following year the club travelled to Masterton and beat a local side 3-0.
Auckland’s Birkenhead and Classic clubs competed in 1921 and the first interprovincial match was played in Christchurch in September that year, Canterbury beating Wellington 1–0.
In December 1921 the English Football Association banned women’s football on grounds used by its member clubs. The adoption of a similar policy in New Zealand saw the sport struggle to maintain its early momentum, and it largely faded into obscurity over the next half-century.
The 1970s saw an upsurge in women’s football. In Wellington, official competition for the Royal Oak Cup (a league competition) and the Kelly Cup (a knockout competition) began in 1973. Auckland also launched a regional league that year. Player numbers boomed: in 1978 Wellington’s Miramar club, for example, fielded seven women’s teams.
By 1991 there were 8,000 women playing football in New Zealand, from school to national competition level. In 2018 nearly 30,000 of the 117,000 adults playing football were women, and around 8,500 of the 50,000 junior footballers were girls.
A national tournament was held annually from 1976, with Wellington and Auckland (later Auckland Manukau) sharing 23 of the 26 titles.
In 2002 the tournament was succeeded by a federation-based National Women’s Soccer League which was dominated by Auckland. In 2010 New Zealand Football decided to focus on youth development, replacing the national league with the ASB Women’s Youth League, an under-20 competition with five over-age players per squad. Age restrictions were removed in 2015. In 2023 a 10-team National League Championship was launched, with four Auckland clubs competing alongside federation teams and the Wellington Phoenix reserve team. The long-term goal was an entirely club-based league.
A national club knockout cup was launched in 1994, with Auckland’s Lynn-Avon United winning nine times by 2009.