The Heart of Defence: Victory, hurdles, and Claudia Bunge

On the face of it, Ford Football Fern #187 Claudia Bunge’s football career has had a solidly upward trajectory.

Playing at age group World Cups. A Ferns debut at 20 – in which she started, and garnered rave reviews. Winning the A-League Championship in her first season with Melbourne Victory. Winning it again in her second. Becoming an Olympian. Becoming a key player in the Ford Football Ferns defence.

And now she’s gunning for selection for her first senior World Cup.


It was watching the 2019 World Cup in the middle of the night at home in Aotearoa that made Bunge realise that playing for the Ford Football Ferns at a World Cup was what she really wanted.

“I always knew football was something I wanted to do,” she says.

“Seeing a lot of the girls I’d played with playing at the World Cup kind of solidified for me that it was something I wanted to do.

“I obviously hadn't played for the Ferns before the World Cup. I think I was in and around as a possible injury replacement. I was a little bit upset that I didn't make it, but also, I was a 19-year-old kid who had never played for the Ferns, so I did understand it. And not making it then made me really want to make it next time round.”



As it turned out, Bunge didn’t have to wait long: her first Ford Football Ferns call up came on the team’s first tour after that World Cup, as attention turned to preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. She quite literally went from watching Ferns centurions like Ali Riley and Ria Percival on TV, to meeting them for the first time a few months later; from idolising the players on posters on her wall to training and playing with them.

“I was a bit nervous meeting them and I think if you ask any of the younger girls we were all a bit nervous because you're meeting your idols. But they're just people at the end of the day and you learn pretty quickly that they're just doing the same thing that you are.”

Then came the moment Bunge had been waiting for: her debut against China.

“Tom [Sermanni] told me I was starting and I think I said to him, ‘are you sure?’” Bunge laughs.

He was.

“I was obviously very excited – and really nervous. At the time we had a few people out with injury; I think Mousey [Meikayla Moore] had just done her Achilles, and Abby [Erceg] wasn't there, so we were a bit light on defenders.

“So he kind of threw me in the deep end, but I'm very grateful to him for taking a chance on me.”

Securing a starting position in international football isn’t easy, especially in defence for the Ford Football Ferns, where a number of top notch defenders have come through over the years.

“We produce lots of good defenders and it's really competitive,” says Bunge.

“It’s a bit of a ‘you have to wait your turn’ kind of scenario - there's not many starting spots for defenders, especially as a centre back.”

Bunge’s first major tournament for the Ferns was the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Played, of course, in 2021, after being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a way, the tournament’s delay might have helped: Bunge signed for Melbourne Victory for the 2020/2021 A-League Women’s season, joining fellow Fern Annalie Longo and her national age group coach Gareth Turnbull in Victoria.

“It definitely took me a little while to adjust,” she recalls.

“But I had a great team around me, the club was really supportive and knowing Gareth was really good. Victory played in a similar way to how we had been playing for the U-17s and U-20s, so it was a pretty smooth transition I feel in terms of a first professional stint anywhere. And also Jeff [Hopkins] just such a great head coach.”

It proved to be a great team too, as Melbourne Victory won their first Championship since 2014.

Being able to get a valuable first professional season under her belt before the Olympics “put me in good stead” for the tournament, where the Ferns were drawn in the same group as three of the eventual semi-finalists: USA, Australia and Sweden.

“The Olympics,” she says, “was a whole new kettle of fish”.

“I didn't really know what to expect. I was trying to learn as much as I could and I knew I probably wouldn't be taking the field as much, so I was doing my best to get the girls that were playing as prepared as possible by being good in training and knowing my role.”


Claudia Bunge's first major senior international tournament was the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Over the years, Bunge has built a reputation for cool composure at the heart of defence coupled with a steely tackle.

Like all football careers, Bunge’s has had its hurdles – from struggling to make the starting teams at age group level, to adapting to the demands of professional and international football. And learning how to summon that composure and channel that steely tackle. In her third game for the Ferns Bunge was sent off against Belgium at the 2020 Algarve Cup. It was another learning curve for a player finding her feet at the top level.

“I was just being a bit overly aggressive and made two dumb fouls,” she remembers.

“I guess when you're young and coming in you're trying your best to keep up with the physicality. I think I just went in a bit too keen.”

But she’s philosophical about the experience, and made sure she learnt from it.

“You learn a lot from making mistakes like that and as a defender, cards are going to happen – that's part of the game. I was a little bit upset after because I haven't had many reds in my career, even playing domestically. But you learn pretty quickly and, it was just another learning opportunity.”


Advice to young players: "Everyone's journey is different" 


Bunge’s journey into international football from being on the fringes of the age group national teams, has taught her valuable lessons that she’s keen to pass on to other young athletes coming through.

“Everyone's journey is different. 

“At the start of U-20s, I wasn't really getting a look in that much, I was a fringe player.

“But reflecting on that and spending time with my Victory teammates and being in and around the Ferns and seeing what my teammates go through, I think people peak at different times.

“You could be like Milly Clegg starting out, a 17-year-old who has just burst onto the scene and is killing it, or you could be someone like Mickey Foster, who it took a bit longer for. That's the beauty of sport: everyone’s story is a little bit different.”

Any advice for up-and-coming players trying to navigate the challenges of high performance sport?

“If you don't make a team as a young person, don't get too down about it,” she says.

“It's obviously upsetting, but if you want to achieve something and you work hard and put your mind to it, you can do it.

“And don't put too much pressure on yourself! I feel like a lot of young athletes get thrown into high pressure situations as it is. So don't worry if things don't happen straight away.”

Article added: Friday 26 May 2023


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