After two months of bitter infighting, the women of one of New Zealand’s biggest soccer clubs last month agreed a deal with club management for pay and conditions equal to those of the men’s team.
But their messy fighting and the slow pace of promised change underscore how difficult it is to achieve progressive parity in women’s football, even when national teams do. The Football Ferns, the women’s national team, obtained parity in 2018.
It’s about more than just pay: it’s about the value placed on women’s sport and the signal that inferior training facilities and resources, and a lack of a voice in club decision-making, sends to generations of girls in heels
“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 are celebrating is that we have what was ours by right.”
The attempt to equalize men’s and women’s soccer salaries has been slow globally, even nationally. The US 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, equalizing the disparity between men’s and women’s tournaments. Norway, Australia and The Netherlands They are among the countries that have taken steps to close the wage gap. Others, like Canada’s Olympic champions, remain in a payment dispute.
New Zealand will co-host the World Cup with Australia over the next month, and football advocates hope the accompanying frenzy will attract more girls to 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 football clubs here remain stuck in an earlier era, where men’s teams are given bigger assignments, better pitches, and more coaching and coaching opportunities.
“It’s not a standalone problem with Western Springs. It’s all in New Zealand at the 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.
The problem is compounded by the fact that most of the clubs are amateur and staffed by volunteers: New Zealand has only one professional football club, the Wellington Phoenix, which has both men’s and women’s teams competing in the Australian A-League. .
The maximum allowance for amateur club players, set by the national soccer federation, is capped at about $94 per week. But whether clubs distribute that money evenly falls below the radar of national officials.
For women, it’s not just about 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 recent training, the Western Springs women had one coach compared to a handful of men.
A group 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 to this rugby-crazed nation – and more scrutiny. the way it is. run.
But his optimism that the Western Springs victory could provide a model for other clubs to follow is tempered by lingering concerns: if parity was difficult 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 several former domestic players including Jackman, fizzled as players from the less prosperous South Auckland area struggled to balance the stresses of work life with the battle for a better wage deal, said. saying.
“What normally happens is that some players stand up in a club environment and just beat them up and then just give up,” Jackman said. “The difference between that and the Western Springs girls here is that they kept standing up for what they believed in and didn’t back down. It’s a pretty strong stance, for the rest of the country.”
Meo is used to defying the odds. Standing just over 5 feet tall, he earned the nickname “Pocket Rocket” while playing football for Southwestern Baptist University in Missouri, because his great speed belied his size. In 2004, he was part of the New Zealand national team.
“I’ve always felt like the underdog,” he said. “Maybe that makes you try harder, perform more.”
Returning home after more than five years in American universities was a culture shock. Meo, 39, went from a professional environment where soccer players were “college celebrities” to one where women wore men’s uniforms and were on second-tier pitches.
He left the sport and dedicated himself to ironman and ultramarathon competitions. This season she decided to return to soccer, reconnecting with a sport she hoped her daughters would soon play, dragging Jackman, 48, along with her.
They were decades over the mostly college-age girls on the tryout, but they made the team. However, the excitement of playing club football again soon gave way to disappointment as they realized how little had changed in their years away.
If anything, the culture had receded, Jackman said. The last time she captained the Western Springs team in 2007, the coach was rooting for the women, and women’s soccer was in the spotlight in a World Cup year.
“I thought, ‘Wait, this is not right,’” Meo said. “Nothing had changed since I left 15 years ago.”
Earlier this year, the pair quickly went to work to bring about a change at the club and set a precedent across the country for the position of women’s football. They called for equal pay, training opportunities and better government oversight at a club where the majority of board members are men.
Meo said she was guided by a motto deployed by Navy sailors to stay on track during storms, later used by the US women’s national team in their years-long fight for equal treatment: “Hold on.” . Stay faithful.”
The couple outlined their goals to the young team, and to their parents, and tried to allay fears that the fight for equality could jeopardize their fledgling soccer careers.
The club in general also rallied around the team, Meo said, with many parents calling to offer support even as the women faced pushback from some club members who thought they were “entitled.”
After a 12-hour mediation marathon (two top sports attorneys took on her case pro bono) and a threatened strike, a settlement was finally reached. In a June statement, the club saying there were “problems” and he apologized for his failures.
The team met in their locker room in Western Springs on June 18. The team’s lawyers were waiting in the room with the agreement of the club. After signing it, the players high-fived their lawyers and ran onto the field. They defeated reigning league champions Auckland United 3-0 to progress to the quarter-finals of the Kate Sheppard Cup, the premier domestic women’s cup competition, named after the pioneer who led New Zealand to becoming the first country to give women the right to vote in 1893.
As eyes turn to the World Cup, Jackman is hopeful that a spirited tournament will highlight a sport that has suffered over the years from underinvestment, even at the national level.
“We are a rugby nation. It has never been a sport that has had a huge investment. But that is certainly changing with the arrival of this World Cup on our shores,” said Jackman. “At the end of the day, we just want to play without hitting our heads against the wall.”