New Zealand women’s soccer teams struggle for parity ahead of World Cup

Western Springs Association Football Club, Women’s Premier team training session in Auckland, New Zealand on July 11, 2023. (Jinki Cambronero for The Washington Post)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The women of Western Springs Association Football Club were in a jovial mood as they gathered for training on a recent wintry evening, their shouts of encouragement to teammates creating clouds of icy breath.

They were not only excited about the looming World Cup, which starts Thursday and will see the Norwegian team using their training ground as its base. They were also still on a high from a recent landmark victory.

After two months of bitter infighting, the women of one of New Zealand’s largest soccer clubs last month agreed to a deal with the club’s management for pay and conditions equal to the men’s side.

But their messy fight, and the slow pace of promised changes, underscores how difficult it is to get trickle-down parity in women’s soccer even when the national teams manage it. The Football Ferns, the national women’s team, scored parity in 2018.

It’s about more than pay: It’s about the value placed on women’s sport and the signal that inferior facilities and training resources — and the lack of a voice in club decision-making — sends to generations of little girls in cleats.

“We can’t really celebrate yet, because we still have to see how the deal plays out,” said Pip Meo, a former New Zealand national player who came out of retirement to join Western Springs this year. “And it’s not really a celebration anyway. What we’re celebrating is that we’ve got what was rightfully ours.”

The bid to equalize pay for men’s and women’s soccer has been a slow grind globally, even at a national level. The U.S. men’s and women’s national teams agreed to a deal last year that includes equal pay and a plan to share World Cup prize money — evening out the disparity between the men’s and women’s tournaments. Norway, Australia and the Netherlands are among the countries that have taken steps to close the pay gap. Others, like Olympic champions Canada, remain in a pay dispute.

What to know about the 2023 women’s World Cup

New Zealand is co-hosting the World Cup with Australia over the next month, and soccer proponents hope the accompanying frenzy will bring more girls into the sport — and keep them.

The Football Ferns are in Group A and will play Norway on Thursday. The other two teams in the group are the Philippines — many of whose players were born and raised in the United States — and Switzerland.

Despite New Zealand’s progressive global image, many soccer clubs here remain mired in an earlier era, where men’s teams receive larger allowances, better fields, and more coaching and training opportunities.

“It’s not a stand-alone issue with Western Springs. It’s all through New Zealand at women’s club level,” said Maia Jackman, another former New Zealand national player who, like Meo, re-signed with the club this year after a long break

Compounding the problem is the fact that most clubs are amateur and staffed by volunteers: New Zealand has only one professional soccer club, the Wellington Phoenix, which has men’s and women’s teams that compete in the Australian A-League.

The maximum allowance for amateur club players — set by the national soccer federation — is capped at roughly $94 a week. But whether clubs distribute that money evenly falls below the radar of national officials.

For the women, it’s not just about the money, which at the amateur level is only enough to cover fuel to travel to training and games. It’s about equal access to the best fields and coaching staff: at the recent training, the Western Springs women had one coach compared with a handful training the men’s side.

A band of current and former players driving the recent push for equity hope that co-hosting the women’s World Cup will bring new visibility to a game that has long played second fiddle in this rugby-mad nation, and more scrutiny of the way it is run.

But their optimism that the Western Springs victory could provide a template for other clubs to follow is tempered by nagging concerns: if parity was hard to achieve in a leafy Auckland suburb, what real hope is there for clubs in areas with fewer resources?

A similar push last year by Manukau United — backed by a number of former national players, including Jackman — failed as players from the less-prosperous South Auckland area struggled to balance the stresses of workday life against the battle for a better pay deal, she said.

“What happens normally is some players will stand up in the club environment and they just get hammered back and then they just give up,” Jackman said. “The difference between that and the Western Springs girls here is they kept standing for what they believed in and they didn’t back down. It’s quite a strong stance, for the rest of the country.”

Meo is accustomed to defying the odds. A little over 5 feet tall, she earned the moniker “Pocket Rocket” while playing soccer for Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, because her zippy speed belied her size. In 2004, she made the New Zealand national squad.

“I’ve always felt like I was the underdog,” she said. “Maybe that makes you try harder, perform more.”

Returning home from five-plus years in American colleges was a culture shock. Meo, 39, went from a professional environment where soccer players were “the celebrities of the university” to a situation where women wore men’s uniforms and were on second-tier fields.

She quit the sport and turned to iron-man competitions and ultramarathons. This season she decided to make a soccer comeback — reconnecting with a sport she hoped her daughters would soon play — dragging Jackman, 48, along with her.

They had decades on the mostly college-aged girls in the trial, but they made the squad. The thrill of being back playing club soccer soon gave way to disappointment, however, as they realized how little had changed in their years away.

If anything, the culture had gone backward, Jackman said. When she last captained the Western Springs side in 2007, the coach was supportive of women, and women’s soccer was in the spotlight in a World Cup year.

“I thought, ‘Hang on, this isn’t right,’” Meo said. “Nothing had changed since I left 15 years ago.”

Earlier this year the pair quickly went to work to bring about change at the club — and set a precedent across the country about the standing of women’s soccer. They called for equal pay, training opportunities and better oversight of governance in a club where the majority of board members are male.

Meo said she was guided by a motto deployed by Navy sailors to stay on track during storms, later used by the U.S. national women’s team in their years-long fight for equitable treatment: “Hold fast. Stay true.”

The pair outlined their goals to the young team — and their parents — and tried to allay fears the equity fight could jeopardize their budding soccer careers.

The wider club also rallied around the team, Meo said, with many dads calling to offer support even as the women faced a pushback from some club members who thought they were “entitled.”

After a marathon 12-hour mediation (two top female sports lawyers took on their case pro bono) and a threatened walkout a deal was finally reached. In a June statement, the club said there had “been issues” and apologized for its failures.

The team gathered in its locker room at Western Springs on June 18. The team’s lawyers were waiting in the room with the club’s agreement. After signing it, players fist-bumped their lawyers and ran onto the field. They defeated the reigning league champions, Auckland United, 3-0, to advance to the quarterfinals of the Kate Sheppard Cup — the premier domestic women’s cup competition, named after the pioneer who led New Zealand to become the first country to give women the right to vote in 1893.

With eyes now turning to the World Cup, Jackman is hopeful a lively tournament will shine a spotlight on a sport that has suffered over the years from a lack of investment even at the national level.

“We’re a rugby nation. It’s never been a sport that’s had huge investment. But that’s certainly changing with this World Cup coming to our shores,” Jackman said. “At the end of the day, we just want to play without hitting our heads against a wall.”

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