Even then, no one could touch her.
In the Football Ferns’ FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 squad announcement video, there’s a clip of Fern #134 Annalie Longo as an eight-year-old. She’s slaloming between players before slipping the ball in the back of the net and wheeling away to celebrate, arms outstretched.
“I was tiny,” she remembers.
“Not much has changed! The shorts were always ten times too big. They actually couldn’t find me shorts,” she says, laughing at the memory.
Her football story began like most kids’ do: on the sidelines of her older brothers’ games, hassling her dad to kick a ball about with her. It didn’t take long for her parents to see she had talent, and so they quickly enrolled her at Eden (which later became Three Kings United, and is now Auckland United). She played everywhere she could, enrolling at Wynrs – All Whites legend and OFC player of the century Wynton Rufer’s academy, and going to a Samba Soccer School.
“I just loved the ball and loved the ball on my feet.”
She also started dancing at the same time she started playing football – influenced by her mum, who was a ballroom dancer.
“My favourite was tap, it kept me light on the toes and light on the feet. I did that all the way through to when I was about 20 years old - so pretty old. Football took over once I saw there were more opportunities with football and where it could take me.
“Football probably didn't help dancing, but dancing definitely helped football.”
From being one of the first players in the world to complete the international set (playing in the U-17, U-20 and senior versions of the World Cup, as well as the Olympic Games), to working through her advanced coaching qualifications, to working as a pundit on Sky Sport while she completed her injury comeback, to dancing between the sometimes contrasting demands of her work in the community space as New Zealand Football’s girls and women’s development manager, Longo is a staple of the New Zealand football scene – and wants to ensure that everyone has the opportunities she’s had.
“I want to give every kind of girl the opportunity that I had through football,” she says.
“And yeah, it might not [ultimately] be football, but it could be anything in women’s sport. I want to open people's eyes to the opportunities it can give you.
“That's why for me it's so important that for one, the performances on the field are there, but also that everything’s happening in the background to ensure the game grows in the right direction.
“We've got the right programmes for girls to get involved, the right pathways and so on. Football's given me so many opportunities, from traveling the world to playing in World Cups, to being in Olympic games to the friendships I've had. I think it's just such an amazing sport that I want to ensure every kind of little girl has the opportunity to do that.”
Programmes like Fantails and Kickin’ It, the girls-only participation programmes for ages 4-12 and 13-19 respectively, created as part of New Zealand Football’s world cup legacy plan Aotearoa United: Legacy Starts Now, are central to that vision. Designed to complement other interests girls might have, such as other sports or activities (including dance), the programmes focus on fun, helping girls make friends, improving their skills and being active through football, rather than finding the next Annalie Longo or Jacqui Hand. They’re no-pressure, fun-focused environments.
Having made her international debut at 15, the age that many girls drop out of organised sport, moving between the different demands of elite football and creating welcoming participation-oriented environments for everyone to play regardless of their goals in football, has been an “eye-opening” experience, Annalie says.
“Don't get me wrong, I love playing with the boys and mixing it with the boys, but not everybody does. So providing choice for girls to get involved is so important. And the more we can encourage and provide positive environments and experiences for our girls, then they're going to want to stay in sport for longer.
“That’s my driver: to make sure a girl has a place to play. And if we can inspire them on the world stage and provide programmes that they've fallen in love with, then I’m pretty happy!”
Article added: Sunday 30 July 2023
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