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by Neill Atkinson and Steve Watters

Football – nicknamed ‘the beautiful game’ – is known for bringing together players of many nationalities. In New Zealand its popularity rivals that of rugby.

Football in New Zealand

International origins

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.

Capital football

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

First clubs

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.

Big numbers

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.

    • Quoted in Neill Atkinson and Tod Purser. Miramar Rangers: 100 years. Wellington: Miramar Rangers Association Football Club, 2007, p. 4. Back

Men’s club and provincial football

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.

Representative games

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.

Cup finalists

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).

National leagues

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.

Men’s international football

By 2015 the New Zealand men’s team had played sides representing about 70 nations, reflecting the international nature of football.

Not so friendly

An English amateur XI put 12 goals past New Zealand twice during its tour here in 1937. In 1967 a full-strength Manchester United team, including celebrated players Bobby Charlton and George Best, scored an emphatic 11–0 victory in a ‘friendly’ at Christchurch’s English Park.

New Zealand versus Australia

The first foray into international men’s football was against New South Wales at Dunedin’s Caledonian Ground on 23 July 1904. The first full internationals were played in 1922 when New Zealand defeated Australia in a three-match series, following up with another series victory on Australian soil the following winter.

This early supremacy over Australia did not last. By 2015 New Zealand had won only 13 times in 64 matches. New Zealand’s 10–0 defeat at the Basin Reserve in Wellington in 1936 remained the country’s heaviest loss in a full international.

At the same time New Zealand football’s best-known trans-Tasman success was its decisive 2–0 victory in Sydney in 1981, effectively qualifying the New Zealanders for the next round in the FIFA World Cup.

All Whites

While black is acknowledged as the main colour for New Zealand sports teams the football team adopted an all-white playing strip during the qualification campaign for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. A play on the more famous All Blacks title saw them nicknamed the ‘All Whites’, and this name stuck.

FIFA World Cup, 1982

After failing to qualify for the previous three tournaments, New Zealand achieved its first appearance in the World Cup finals in Spain in 1982. The exploits of this team, dubbed ‘the All Whites’, earned them a place in New Zealand sporting history.

The many twists and turns during an epic qualifying schedule of 15 games at venues stretching halfway across the globe captured the hearts of Kiwi sports fans. A number of the key games were played against the backdrop of the controversial and violent Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand, and this allowed football to outshine rugby for the first time. The All Whites qualified for the finals when they won a dramatic 2–1 victory over China in a sudden-death play-off in Singapore.

In Spain the All Whites were given little hope in a pool that included cup favourites Brazil, the Soviet Union and Scotland. The Scots got a fright when New Zealand pulled back two goals after trailing 3–0, before eventually winning 5–2. The team also performed with credit in defeats to the Soviet Union (3–0) and Brazil (4–0).

It would be 28 years before New Zealand again appeared at the World Cup finals.

FIFA World Cup, 2010

Qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was made somewhat easier by Australia’s move to the Asian Football Confederation in 2006. To grab the last qualifying spot New Zealand had to face Bahrain (the fifth-placed team from Asia) at home and away.

Record breakers

Ivan Vicelich, who played all three matches in South Africa, is New Zealand’s most-capped player with 88 appearances. Vaughan Coveny is the national side’s record marksman with 28 international goals in a 64-match career stretching from 1992 to 2006.

Following a 0–0 draw in the away leg New Zealand won a dramatic home match 1–0 thanks to a powerful Rory Fallon header and a penalty save by goalkeeper Mark Paston. The final whistle sparked scenes of wild jubilation among the capacity Wellington crowd, the like of which had never been seen at a football match in this country.

In South Africa a stoppage time equaliser from Winston Reid in the first game against Slovakia set the scene for a memorable tournament. In the second game New Zealand took a shock 1–0 lead against defending world champions Italy, courtesy of a Shane Smeltz strike. The match ended in a 1–1 draw.

In the final pool match a 0–0 draw against Paraguay was not enough to see the All Whites through to the second round of the competition. However, they left South Africa as the tournament’s only undefeated team.

Professional footballers

For many years football in New Zealand was an amateur, or at best semi-professional, sport. As a result most of New Zealand’s top footballers keen to make a living from playing were forced to play abroad.

Playing in Britain

Given Britain’s historic ties with New Zealand and its status as the home of football, it was the ultimate destination for many aspiring Kiwi pros.

Goalkeeper Peter Whiting became something of a trailblazer for New Zealand football in 1967. After winning the Chatham Cup with Wellington club Miramar Rangers, he made the jump to English football with second division side Charlton Athletic.

In 1995 Lee Norfolk became the first New Zealander to play in England’s top division when he appeared for Ipswich Town in the Premier League. He was followed by Danny Hay at Leeds United in 2000.

Europe and the US

Since the 1980s a handful of New Zealanders have found success in other European leagues, most notably Wynton Rufer in Switzerland and Germany and Ivan Vicelich in the Netherlands.

The US college system has provided another pathway for Kiwi footballers. All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen graduated from Greensboro College to the American Major League Soccer club DC United before making what many saw as the ultimate move to the English Premier League. Joining Blackburn in 2005 Nelsen played 172 games for the Lancashire side and became club captain before moving to fellow Premier League clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Queen’s Park Rangers.

Since 2005 three other New Zealanders have played in England’s top league: Simon Elliott (Fulham), who also came through the US college system, Winston Reid (West Ham United) and Chris Wood (West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City).

Wynton Rufer

Wynton Rufer is acknowledged as New Zealand’s greatest footballer. His record of 224 goals in more than 500 club matches in New Zealand and overseas was seen as unlikely to be matched by any other New Zealander.

Although he played only 23 times for his country he was remembered for scoring what proved to be the winner in the play-off against China in 1982, which saw New Zealand qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

During his time with German side Werder Bremen, Rufer established himself as one of the Bundesliga’s most feared strikers. In addition to winning a German league title and two German Cups, he scored in Bremen’s victory in the 1992 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final.

In 1999 he was voted Oceania Footballer of the Century and returned home to lead the Auckland-based Football Kingz club as player-manager in the Australian National Soccer League.

The A-League

The Football Kingz represented New Zealand football’s first foray into an Australian national club competition. It also provided local talent with a career path closer to home. In 2004 the Football Kingz were restructured into the New Zealand Knights as a new franchise for Australia's new fully professional A-League.

The Knights performed dismally on and off the field before being replaced by Wellington Phoenix in 2007. Despite some financial difficulties in 2011 the Phoenix achieved a degree of on-field success in the competition with three play-off appearances in its first five seasons.

Women’s football

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.

‘Properly garbed’

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.

International competition

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.

Professional players

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.

    • Auckland Star, 12 August 1921, p. 8. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Neill Atkinson and Steve Watters, 'Football', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2021)

Story by Neill Atkinson and Steve Watters, published 5 Sep 2013, reviewed & revised 15 Jul 2016, updated 15 Sep 2016