New Zealand never has been and never will be a big Football nation. But the lack of attention its domestic Football gets in the blogosphere means that some one its more curious characteristics sadly go unnoticed by the rest of the world. In this post, we explore some of Kiwi Football’s remarkable idiosyncrasies.
While Auckland is a city that I really didn’t take to, I got to spend a modest amount of time following two of its leading Football clubs. Auckland City FC and Central United FC are sister clubs operating within the same organisation but competing in different competitions. Auckland City is unquestionably the biggest contemporary Football club in New Zealand, having won 10 consecutive OFC Champions League titles (a global record), but the club remains grounded and loyally serves its local community. The club management vehemently prioritises fan satisfaction and wellbeing, and post-game evenings in the clubhouse see fans spending time with players, coaching staff and directors alike. This closeness between clubs and fans is not unique to Central or Auckland City, but is in fact common in NZ Football.
Of course part of this is down to the fact that NZ clubs are not conventionally “big clubs”. But this fan-first attitude is in keeping with NZ’s history as a world-leader in progressive politics and with the considerate nature of the Kiwis. NZ was the very first country to give women the vote way back in 1893, long before the country became an independent nation state, and in 1977 a transsexual drag queen known as Trevor “Carmen” Rupe ran in the mayoral election in the capital Wellington. Kiwi culture has always been ahead of the game when it comes to human rights, equality, fair treatment and respect toward each other, partly because governmental officials and policy makers were careful not to repeat mistakes made by colonisers in Australia concerning native populations (though many actual settlers in NZ were not so kind to the Maori). It’s therefore no surprise that the country’s Football clubs treat their fans well, instead of seeing them merely as consumers.
Winter and Summer Months
New Zealand splits its Football competitions across seasons. The ISPS Handa Premiership, NZ’s leading national Football league, begins in October and runs through to April, NZ’s Summer months. The regional Football leagues run from April until usually around September, through the Winter. The ISPS Handa Premiership is a young league (founded in only 2004) established as an initiative to build a platform for nationwide competitive Football that ultimately nurtures Kiwi talent. Its seasonal alignment with the European leagues and the Hyundai A-League brings certain benefits on an international perspective, as games can be scheduled around European international breaks and and foreign transfer markets.
We are yet to see the fruit of these labours in terms of international Football success of the All Whites, but the result is that throughout the year, Football enthusiasts are able to find a match to watch in NZ. During the Summer months, the young ISPS Handa Premiership sees NZ’s major cities competing against each other in the medium of Football, while Winter heralds the return of the regional leagues, in which teams play against clubs closer to home. It is also worthwhile to note that the ISPS Handa Premiership operates as a franchise league; there is no relegation function, and teams compete in a league structure before a play-off system selects the ultimate victor from the four highest-placed teams in the primary league season.
Apart from geographical isolation, New Zealand’s greatest challenge will always be its concentration of populations in pockets of the country with little settlement or infrastructure in between. The sporting consequence of concentrated settlement was the establishment of regional leagues, as travel times between major cities were simply too great in for example the 1960’s to support a NZ national competition. Clubs pretty much unanimously preferred a regional league structure, as travel was far easier for the amateur players. In a modern world where cost-effective transport and social media evaporate long distances, the ISPS Handa Premiership may succeed where other attempts to formulate a Kiwi national league have failed. For the time being however, the Capital/ Central, Northern, Mainland and Southern regional Football leagues remain far more popular, thanks to the more prestigious rivalries that exist between traditional clubs within for example Wellington and Auckland than there are between the country’s different cities. Local derbies simply offer a certain sparkle that the ISPS Handa Premiership lacks.
The exception is the Chatham Cup; an annual club competition open to Football clubs across the whole of NZ that has taken place consistently since its inaugural year in 1923 excluding the years 1937 and 1941 to 1944. The Chatham Cup was gifted to the NZ Football Association by the crew of HMS Chatham in 1922 and is reported to have been modeled on the Football Association Challenge Cup itself. Being one of the oldest Football competitions in New Zealand and one that frequently pits teams against new opponents, it is the Holy Grail of Kiwi Football. The 91st edition of the Chatham Cup Final will be played on the 10th of September this year.
Pakeha Interest and 20th Century Immigration
Pākehā is the term used in the Maori language to describe an individual of European or Western descent born in Aotearoa/ New Zealand. The Maori, who currently make up around 15% of NZ’s population, seem to participate far more in Rugby than they do in Football (we sadly do not have statistics to prove this). And while NZ has growing populations of Asians, Melanesians and Polynesians who may prefer Football, lamentably Football remains the sport of the Pakeha “white” people.
But it is important to acknowledge the fact that Kiwi Football is not the exclusive pastime of the British or Protestant communities whose forefathers colonised the country. Mid-20th century migrants to NZ from notably the Mediterranean have played a huge role in Kiwi Football, founding clubs that have faithfully served and represented their immigrant communities through the years. The most celebrated examples are Olympic FC in Wellington, founded by the local Greek community, and Central United FC of Auckland, which continues to represent the city’s Dalmatian community.
At clubs like Olympic and Central, the influence of their respective immigrant communities is very visible in the decor and language used by fans and staff. But when you see the Kiwi fans in action on matchday, their customs and traditions are remarkably British in fashion. There is a greater focus on clapping and chanting instead of the use of flags and choreographies, something that certainly distinguishes British Football culture from other Football cultures in 2018. When you look back at Kiwi history, the emergence of a very Anglophile Football culture is to be expected.
Of all possessions of the British Empire, none was more willing than New Zealand. Often referred to as the “Britain Of The South” and “Britain’s Offshore Farm”, NZ existed as a British Dominion between 1907 and 1947 (when it became a fully independent nation) with a greater degree of economic, political and military autonomy at this time. However, Kiwis valued their close economic and mercantile ties to the UK and were actually very reluctant to see their bond with the UK weaken, given that such a larger portion of Kiwi agricultural produce was sold to the UK (the historic economic dependence of NZ on the UK probably explains why the exchange rate between the Pound Sterling and NZ Dollar is so stable at 1:2, but hopefully an economist can confirm or refute this). Even to this day, there exists little hostility and sporting rivalry between NZ and the UK. The affection that NZ has historically felt toward the UK handily explains why Kiwi Football fan customs so closely resemble those found on English terraces; England and the UK would naturally be the place that most Kiwis would look to for inspiration, even in spite of individual Kiwi clubs having ties to other European communities.
The final observation to make is that Football still plays second fiddle to that other ball sport in New Zealand. Merchandise sales are higher, TV coverage is far greater, match attendances are higher and there exists far more folklore concerning Rugby in New Zealand than there is regarding Football. What is the story behind Rugby’s overwhelming popularity in New Zealand? Alas, this is definitely a topic to be explored at greater length in another future post….