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. While still overshadowed by the men’s game, 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.
The sport struggled to maintain its early momentum, and faded into obscurity over the next half-century.
However, 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 (knockout) began in 1973. Auckland also launched a regional league that year. Player numbers boomed: by 1978 Wellington’s Miramar club, for example, had enough players to field seven teams.
A national tournament was held annually from 1976, with Wellington and Auckland (later Auckland Manukau) sharing 23 of the first 26 titles.
In 2002 the tournament was succeeded by a federation-based National Women’s Soccer League. Over the following eight seasons this 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.
Meanwhile a national club knockout cup was launched in 1994, with Auckland’s Lynn-Avon United winning nine times by 2009.
A New Zealand Women’s Football Association was formed in 1975 when a national side was invited to compete in the Asian Ladies’ Football Confederation Cup in Hong Kong. Remarkably the untried Kiwis defeated Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia and Thailand to claim an international trophy at the first attempt.
In the 1980s the national team finished second (1981), fourth (1984) and second-equal (1987) at a series of World Invitational Tournaments in Taiwan, an unofficial forerunner of the FIFA Women’s World Cup launched in 1991. The New Zealand team – then known as the Swanz – appeared in that first tournament in China, but failed to qualify for the following three events.
By 2007 the national team was known as the Football Ferns. They returned to the World Cup stage that year and in 2011, and earned their first point in the latter tournament. New Zealand women also competed at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, reaching the quarterfinals in London in 2012.
At the 2013 Valais Cup in Switzerland the Football Ferns became the first New Zealand football team to beat world powerhouse Brazil with a 1–0 win. The Football Ferns went on to defeat China 4–0 in the final to claim their first trophy outside their home confederation since winning the Asian Cup in 1975.
New Zealand under-17 and under-20 teams performed increasingly well in the 21st century, beating Colombia, Chile and Switzerland at FIFA World Cup tournaments. In 2018 the under-17 team finished third at the FIFA World Cup.
An increasing number of New Zealand women play in overseas leagues, which are often fully or semi-professional. Maureen Jacobson and Michele Cox were the first to play in Europe in the late 1980s.
The 21-woman Football Ferns squad for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup included five players from the strong German league, three from England and two from Sweden, while another two played university soccer in the United States.
In 2016 New Zealander Sarai Bareman became the most powerful figure in women's football when she was appointed as FIFA's first Chief Women's Football Officer.