The A-League Women, an Australian-based semi-professional football competition, was established in 2008. In September 2021, the Wellington Phoenix announced that they were forming a women's team which would enter the competition in December. This move came after pressure to improve playing opportunities for women, especially as New Zealand was to co-host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The establishment of the team was made possible by significant funding from Sport NZ.
The first head coach, Welsh-born Gemma Lewis, was assisted by English-born Natalie Lawrence – one of only two all-female coaching teams in the competition that season. In late 2022, Lawrence became head coach, assisted by New Zealand-born Callum Holmes.
In its first season the team was based in Wollongong, New South Wales because of New Zealand’s COVID-19 travel restrictions. The team finished last in its first two seasons, but was increasingly competitive.
While the establishment of a professional women’s team was a significant step forward for New Zealand football, many of the players needed outside employment to augment their Phoenix salaries, and the squad was under-resourced in comparison with the men’s team.
Professional players overseas
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, for Millwall Lionesses and TSV Siegen respectively.
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 2023, four New Zealand women were playing in the English Women’s Super League (the equivalent of the English Premier League): C. J. Bott (Leicester City), Anna Leat (Aston Villa), Ria Percival (Tottenham Hotspur) and Rebekah Stott (Brighton & Hove Albion). Another four turned out for top-tier Scottish teams: Olivia Chance (Celtic), Victoria Esson (Rangers), Meikeyla Moore (Glasgow City) and Katie Rood (Heart of Midlothian). Six more were playing professionally in Europe. In the US, two Football Ferns captains played for National Women’s Soccer League teams: Abby Erceg (Racing Louisville) and Ali Riley (Angel City). Ten New Zealanders played for teams other than the Wellington Phoenix in the A-League Women.
Abby Erceg was the first New Zealand player, male or female, to play 100 international matches. In 2013 she signed with German club Jena, which competed in the Bundesliga, the top league. In 2014 she joined the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States. Moving to Western New York Flash in 2015, she captained the side to a league championship. Erceg played for the North Carolina Courage from 2017 until 2023, when she was traded to Racing Louisville FC.