A Condensed History Of New Zealand Women’s Football written by Jeremy Ruane with support from the NZ Football Foundation

Establishing The Code

There is evidence of women’s football being played in New Zealand as long ago as 1920, but with the country being an outpost of empire, once the Football Association in England effectively banned the playing of women’s football in 1921, the game was up for the female footballers of the day in our area of the world too.

It took fifty years for common sense to prevail, and by 1973, official club-based women’s league competitions were being played in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. 

Two years later, the Auckland Football Association received an invitation from Asia requesting the participation of our national team in a tournament. This ultimately brought about the formation of the New Zealand Women’s Football Association (NZWFA).

The 1975 Asian Cup

The aforementioned invitation was for the 1975 Asian Cup, the preparations for which saw Roy Cox, widely regarded as the father of the women’s game in New Zealand, in his element.

Not only was he instrumental in the NZWFA’s formation, he instigated all sorts of money-making schemes to raise funds for the New Zealand squad’s pioneering trip to Hong Kong to compete in the tournament.

Dave Farrington was charged with coaching the sixteen-strong squad which, captained by Barbara Cox, played four hour-long matches, per FIFA rules for women at the time. 

They overcame the host nation 2-0, Malaysia 3-0, Australia 3-2 and Thailand 3-1 in a final watched by 12,000 spectators. Dual international Marilyn Marshall scored twice in the final, and six goals overall, while Nora Hetherington’s penalty ten minutes from time clinched the silverware.

Trans-Tasman Rivalry

Following that trailblazing triumph, the national team didn’t grace the world stage again until 1979, when New Zealand’s sporting rivalry with Australia was embraced by another code.

The Matildas hosted the inaugural three-match series for the Trans-Tasman Cup, with a 2-2 draw followed by 1-0 wins for both nations, Rosie Ah Wong’s goal ensuring New Zealand scored the inaugural victory in Sydney. 

The Kiwis hosted the event in 1980, with two high-scoring draws preceding a 3-2 scoreline in Christchurch which allowed the visitors to claim the silverware outright, the first series having been drawn.

Those matches set the trend for what has been a fiercely contested battle for trans-tasman supremacy over the years, one in which Australia has certainly enjoyed the edge since 1994, the last time the Kiwis prevailed at senior level, although we have savoured our fair share of successes in age-grade international encounters.

Taking On The World – The 1980s

The Women’s World Invitational Tournament, contested in Taiwan in 1981, 1984 and 1987, was the forerunner to the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Representatives of the leading women’s footballing countries of the day played daily over the course of a week to give the women’s game an early indication of world rankings.

The Kiwis fared rather well, Dave Boardman’s squad bringing home the runners-up trophy in 1981, a feat matched by Roy Cox’s side six years later, when arguably New Zealand’s most famous victory of all was recorded, Ali Grant’s goal earned a 1-0 win over a USA side featuring women’s footballing giants Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm.

As well, the Oceania Nations Cup was launched in 1983, with Cox’s charges securing the silverware courtesy a thrilling 3-2 triumph over Australia. Taiwan proved a thorn in our side when they contested the tournament in 1986 and 1989.


The Football Ferns at the 1991 FIFA Women's World Cup

FIFA Introduces The Women’s World Cup

Both of these tournaments were superseded in 1991 by arguably the most significant global development in women’s football’s history – the introduction of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The first Finals were hosted by China, and in order to be part of it as Oceania’s representatives, New Zealand had to overcome Papua New Guinea and Australia. Both trans-tasman rivals recorded 1-0 wins in their two clashes, but it was the 27 goals scored in their two games against PNG which earned the Kiwis their place at China ‘91.

There, sobering losses to Denmark, Norway and the host nation were recorded, Kim Nye scoring our only goal of the Finals against China. It was the Matildas who proved more prolific against the Papuans four years later. Indeed, it wasn’t until after Australia switched Confederations, from Oceania to Asia in 2006, that New Zealand women’s football got the chance to return to the top table once again.

The Challenging Years

The world game was moving on apace, something we discovered whenever we took on top-level opposition post 1991. New Zealand copped heavy defeats from the likes of Germany, the USA, China, North Korea (11-0 – our biggest ever loss) and Japan before we next qualified for a FIFA Finals.

2001 saw the NZWFA absorbed into New Zealand Football. This came during a period when the national team played just five matches in 4.5 years – dark days indeed for women’s football, which only ended after Australia’s switch to Asia. This meant the national body had no alternative but to invest in the women’s game in order for us to be competitive on the world stage, because New Zealand would be flying the flag for Oceania women’s football going forward.

Growing The Game 

Meanwhile, the women’s game domestically was mushrooming during this period, with talented players galore emerging around the country as clubs and representative sides embraced then FIFA Secretary General Sepp Blatter’s 1995 statement, “The future of football is feminine”.

Clubs such as Mt. Wellington / Eden, Miramar and Nomads dominated the early years of the women’s game in their respective regions, but around 1994, when the Kate Sheppard Cup – the national club knockout trophy – was introduced, new rivalries were forming, none bigger than that between Auckland giants Lynn-Avon and Three Kings.

Rare indeed was the New Zealand player who didn’t play for either of these clubs during this period, such was their dominance domestically. At their zenith, both sides could boast entire squads who’d played for their country at senior or age-grade level, something we’ll never see in again.

The National Women’s Tournament began in 1976, an annual week-long gathering of the game’s elite in a single venue which saw teams playing at least once a day. Wellington dominated initially, but from 1983 Auckland usurped them, and set the standards for the next 25 years.

The change to a weekly National Women’s League format was made in 2002, and it was only after age-grade-related changes were made to the competition in 2010 that the Mainland and Northern federations became prominent.​​​​​​​

Players congratulate Anna Leat after her penalty saving heroics 

Kiwi Women Embrace Planet Football

Age-grade international action began in earnest in the late 1990s, with FIFA introducing an U-19 Women’s World Cup in 2002. Australia’s switch to Asia opened the door for New Zealand to take on the world at all levels, with the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Finals in Russia the first opportunity to do so.  

That year also saw New Zealand named as hosts of the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Finals in 2008, an event which brought the women’s game to the attention of the nation, and found, in Rosie White and Annalie Longo, new stars to follow in the footsteps of Maureen Jacobson and Michele Cox, the first Kiwi women to play professionally in Europe in the late 1980s.

Many others followed in their footsteps, as the Football Ferns went from famine to feast with a diet of at least ten internationals per year from 2007 onwards. They swiftly made their mark on the world stage with numerous impressive results, the pick of which saw them qualifying for the 2012 Olympics quarter-finals, before beating Brazil and China to win the Valais Cup a year later. 

Supplementing their efforts were the 2014 FIFA U-20 quarter-finalists, and the U-17 side, who, inspired by Anna Leat’s goalkeeping exploits, incredibly finished third at the 2018 FIFA U-17 Finals, one of the greatest achievements in the country's footballing history.

The World Comes To New Zealand

2023 will mark fifty years of women’s football in New Zealand, and to celebrate the milestone, the women’s footballing world is set to converge on our corner of the globe as we co-host, with Australia, the biggest sporting event to ever grace these shores.

The ninth FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals will see 32 countries competing for women’s football’s greatest prize, with Auckland’s Eden Park the centre of attention on 20 July as the host nation’s representatives, the Football Ferns, kick off the month-long quadrennial celebration of the women’s game in front of a sell-out crowd, with an estimated global audience in the billions looking on from afar.

Hamilton, Wellington and Dunedin will also host matches on this side of the Tasman as the foremost footballing nation in Oceania welcomes the world to Aotearoa. For New Zealand women’s football, it doesn’t get any better than this!