New Zealand Football: A Challenging Backdrop

In this four-part series, Ryan Murray unravels the complex tapestry of New Zealand football, delves into the nuances which have thwarted the Kiwis’ progress, reflects on whether recent infrastructural changes have had any immediate positive impact, and considers what the future holds for New Zealand’s domestic game.

Through the vehicle of aggressive colonial expansion, Europe’s imperial powers introduced football—alongside a raft of other pastimes and cultural traditions—to the Pacific region. However, rather ironically, most present-day Europeans have little to no knowledge of Oceania’s footballing landscape; just like the imperial infrastructures which once served to help govern this watery expanse, a genuine interest in the region’s relationship with the beautiful game ceases to exist. 

Whilst a host of former colonies have gone on to enjoy unprecedented success on the global stage, the nations affiliated with the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC)—the  representative governing body of football associations in the Pacific—have endured a slightly more modest pathway through the realms of international football. Of course, the topography, geographical isolation, and population size of Pacific nations make for a series of logistical challenges that no FIFA-registered nation would envy.

However, this does not quite explain the stunted footballing development of one of its larger land masses: New Zealand.

New Zealand, Australia, football, Oceania, Kiwi football, Aussie football, A-League, the domestic game
Artwork by Shivani Khot

Why has New Zealand’s development been so protracted throughout the decades? Does the latest permutation of its perpetually evolving national league structure provide any green shoots of optimism, or will it again flatter to deceive? And how can New Zealand’s modest international success be harnessed to provide a better quality of football within its borders?

In A-league of their own

Although conditions in Australia may be more slightly conducive for establishing a solid footballing infrastructure, the sheer distance in which New Zealand lags behind their closest neighbour confirms that the Kiwis’ inferior performance in this regard is not merely a product of circumstance. One only needs to look at the comparative exploits of the Australian national side to illustrate the disparity between the two nations.

Since switching to the AFC on New Year’s Day 2006, the Socceroos haven’t looked back.

Less than seven months after their confederation re-alignment, Australia recorded a last sixteen finish at the World Cup (Guus Hiddink’s side were cruelly eliminated by eventual winners Italy – a dubious stoppage-time penalty award subsequently led to Francesco Totti converting a last-minute winner from the spot), venturing further in the competition than they had in any other previous campaign. Although unable to advance beyond the group stage in any of their World Cup appearances since, Australia’s ability to successfully adapt and consistently qualify for the Finals in a completely new environment has been impressive. Furthermore, the Aussies have also returned positive results in an exclusively regional context, consistently reaching the latter stages of the AFC Cup. In 2007 and 2019, Australia made it to the quarter-final stage of Asia’s pan-continental tournament, whilst in 2011, the Socceroos ended the tournament runners-up in Qatar. A landmark 2015 AFC Cup victory, which incidentally came on home soil, crystallised Australia’s rise through OFC obscurity, and into relative global prominence.

The A-League is the foundation for Australia’s ongoing success. It is no coincidence that the most decorated period in the country’s footballing history commenced in the immediate aftermath of the league’s inception, despite the A-League’s establishment practically coinciding with AFC registration, resulting in the Aussies routinely facing much tougher opposition.

Aussie activity

If Australian football has been given a shot in the arm via the construction and successful execution of the A-League project, then, via its complete inability to administer a suitable domestic league system, New Zealand has conversely shot itself in the foot.

Even accounting for its disconnected location from football’s most active theatres of activity (a challenge that Australia clearly also faces), the Kiwi nation has failed to produce a framework conducive to the rapid progression of the modern game. Given the aforementioned circumstances, it may seem a little harsh to make such a severe judgement, but if a similar performance was replicated in other sectors, there would be little tolerance for the way things have unfolded. 

Australia’s delivery of a glossy, top-tier league, coupled with a national team capable of regularly competing at major international tournaments, accentuates the shortcomings of New Zealand’s domestic set-up. For decades, the country’s trans-Tasman cousin has shown them exactly how it should be done.

Indeed, given their appetite for success and their restlessness in attempting to continually improve their domestic product, the Aussies have sought refuge in a more competitive environment. They were so eager to avoid stagnation amongst a roster of sides incapable of challenging their regional hegemony, Australia became a member of the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) in 2006—tellingly, the Socceroos did not discriminate between New Zealand and the rest of the Pacific outfits in their decision-making process.

Mind the Gap

One, of course, must appreciate the Aussie advantage in relation to population size and commercial power, but surely New Zealand should be able to compete far better with its closest rival? 

New Zealand’s footballing history is intimately intertwined with its Australian counterpart. From inaugural internationals to cross-pollination between leagues, the two overwhelming giants of Australasian football have shared many a battle over the years, and are therefore often banded together in order to provide a base for comparative conversations..  The Aussies have always held the balance of power. This dynamic has become more pronounced in recent decades, continually exemplified by each nation’s domestic and international endeavours. Although the Kiwis may point to several victories and brief moments of superiority over their fiercest adversary (for example, NZ fleetingly overtook Australia in FIFA’s official rankings towards the end of 2002), there is a complete absence of any sustained challenge to the preeminence of their western neighbour.

The key catalyst driving this ever-increasing gap is the practices of each country’s respective governing body, who are accountable for the organisation and delivery of domestic leagues and competitions, for grassroots development, and for driving the evolution of its international side. Indeed, even a relatively gentle probe into one of these operational areas – each country’s ‘elite’ league set-ups –  sufficiently illustrates this point . 

The creation of the A-League proved to be a symbolic shift in the narrative of Australian football, re-calibrating the country’s previous peripheral position. Highly professionalised, easily marketable, commercially investable, and ultra-competitive, the A-League demanded respect from global audiences, and arguably put the domestic game on the pathway towards progress and prosperity. 

In contrast, New Zealand’s internal efforts in this regard have produced polar-opposite results.

A fruitless journey

In almost experimental fashion, the governing body has adjusted the format, structure, and branding of New Zealand’s strongest division, desperate to land on a formula which will resonate with the native population, attract global broadcasters and sponsors, and help to supply the national team with a consistent conveyor belt of talent. Unfortunately, despite a series of re-brands, re-launches and gimmick-riddled initiatives, New Zealand Football has tried in vain to deliver a league which addresses each of these objectives, and have consequently been left with a domestic product that lags significantly behind most developed nations. One can point to a myriad of factors as to why successive projects have failed. 

It would perhaps be unfair to assert that New Zealand’s outputs should be on par with football’s major European dynasties; after all, the cultural influence of the game is far less interwoven into the fabric of society, with other sports often demanding greater attention. However, even within its like-for-like peer group, amongst nations who preside over similar domestic conditions, New Zealand compares poorly. Japan, China, and the U.S were all at one stage in a similar boat, facing the challenges of limited funding, operating under loose  organisational frameworks, and attempting to elevate football’s position in their respective nation’s sporting agenda. However, pit the current J1-League, Chinese Super League (CSL), or Major League Soccer (MLS) against New Zealand’s top-tier, and the huge gap in quality— from a playing standard, branding, and infrastructural perspective—is all too easily visible.

One critical difference between clubs affiliated to any of the aforementioned leagues, and New Zealand’s strongest teams, is their operational structure. All competitors in the J1-League, CSL, and MLS are fully-professional; contrastingly, all but one New Zealand-based side Wellington Phoenix, who, rather poignantly, participate in the A-League—are semi-professional or amateur.

However, given the local appetite for the sport, the potential fiscal power at its disposal, and its historical association with the game, there really is no excuse as to why New Zealand has been unable to construct a footballing pyramid more befitting of its stature. 

Throughout its 127-year reign as the country’s chief footballing authority, New Zealand Football has been unable to deliver a successful model for its top-tier domestic league (and, for that matter, its collective league system)—trying and failing on numerous attempts to do so. In the last five decades alone, seven significant changes to New Zealand’s domestic league set-up have been commissioned, and subsequently discarded, as New Zealand Football toils in its quest to land an appropriately functioning local system.

But could this long, protracted sequence of misses soon become a relic of the past? Has a recipe for success been eventually discovered, or has another false dawn cast its troublesome shadow once more? The National League heralds a new chapter in the history of New Zealand’s footballing landscape—but to understand its potential, we must first assess the failures of the past…

Ryan Murray

With a lifelong association to football, Ryan Murray has embraced the beautiful game in all guises; as a player, spectator, and now writer. Specializing in the daily soap dramas & cultural nuances that perfectly characterize the chaos of the Scottish game, you can often find him scrolling through endless reams of information about his beloved football club (which will remain unnamed), or alternatively researching a particular bizarre or intriguing (well, at least he finds it so) episode from some distant corner of the footballing world. He resides in Leeds, but appears more often at seventh tier grounds around the urban sprawls of West Yorkshire than at Elland Road - it just feels more like football. He lives with his fiancée and sausage dog, both of whom now support the right club.