New Zealand Football: Domestic Matters

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.

You can read Part 1 here.

Failed ventures

Unlike many concepts which have followed, the National Soccer League—New Zealand’s first official domestic top-flight—adopted a conventional format. The division, which was active for 22 years, was comprised of amateur and semi-professional teams from locations across the length and breadth of the country, who competed against each other twice per season (home and away); the club which had accumulated the most points at the conclusion of the campaign was awarded the league championship. Simple. Unfortunately, this was as straightforward as it got. After just over two decades in existence, the NSL dissolved in 1992 due to financial difficulties, pre-empting a sequence of failed ventures as the structure and branding of New Zealand’s top-tier fluctuated with counterproductive regularity.  

The short-lived Superclub League, in operation between 1993 and 1995, was the closest format to the newly integrated National League structure. A regional-based preliminary stage would determine which teams would progress to a decisive national league phase. The onward process from this point, however, was a little more long-winded in nature. The eight sides that qualified from their respective geographical location would play each other once, before the resultant top four teams would advance to the penultimate stage of the tournament. After playing each other in another mini-league format, the top two ranked sides would compete in a grand final for the overall championship. Confusing enough? Unfortunately, this was a mere warm-up for the chaos that was about to ensue; complexity was arguably the only consistent feature of New Zealand’s top division for the next 25 years or so.

A seasonal re-alignment followed, with the controversial National Summer League introduced at the expense of the ultimately unsuccessful Superclub League. This ill-conceived project did plenty to upset the footballing traditionalist—teams were invited to participate based on non-performance-related criteria, such as whether a club’s inclusion would offer a suitable commercial benefit to the league, whilst a ‘closed’ approach to promotion and relegation was embraced; regardless of their on-field performance, the same sides were guaranteed a place in the competition each season. As Europe’s ‘elite’ clubs have recently learned to their significant embarrassment, attempting to facilitate a league which functions to make a select, pre-ordained group far wealthier than the rest, protects its constituent members from the threat of relegation, and blocks the development of others by preventing pathways into the competition (i.e., through promotion) is not something that players, fans, or the media look upon with much fondness. 

However, admittedly, given the level of emotion that permeates the European game, and the nature of the connection felt between fans and their respective clubs, criticism of this model is far more prevalent in this context than elsewhere. True, there are several leagues which have landed this framework successfully; the fledgling Indian Super League, the aforementioned MLS, and of course the A-League, are all prime examples of this concept resonating with local audiences. Nevertheless, if you couple this semi-controversial approach with inadequacies in other areas (for example, some league rules were notably odd, doing much to undermine the league’s credibility—penalty shoot-outs would determine drawn fixtures, with a bonus point awarded to the victor, whilst teams that secured a victory within 90 minutes were allocated four points as opposed to three), a negative outcome is inevitable. Unsurprisingly, this particular experiment was unceremoniously dumped in 1998 having only staged three seasons of action.   

The New Zealand Island League project then followed, which manipulated the country’s most distinctive geographical boundary to organise two separate leagues, each based either side of the Cook Strait. North and South Island clubs would compete within an internal league structure, before the strongest side in each locality would go head-to-head in a single play-off contest with the winner declared national league champions. Its tenure was even more short-lived than its much-maligned predecessor, being abandoned after just one season. The solitary Island League campaign saw Central United claim the championship—eternal bragging rights for the North secured.

Another concept soon materialised. The National Club Championship (a direct cousin of the National Soccer League project), in existence between 2000 and 2003, was a little more streamlined than those which had immediately gone before; its three-year lifespan is a pertinent indication of its limited viability. From a geographical perspective, the composition of clubs was noticeably askew; throughout the competition’s duration, no more than three South Island sides competed in any single campaign, reflecting a balance of power which has come to characterise New Zealand’s footballing landscape in recent times. Furthermore, in a bizarre development, league rules initially dictated that teams receive a bonus point for netting four goals or more in a single match—unsurprisingly, this ‘innovative’ idea was dropped after the league’s inaugural season.

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

Improvements made

After the National Club Championship initiative was discarded, a one-season hiatus from national-level league activity was announced; only regional-based competitions were facilitated during the 2003-04 campaign. Arguably, this interim period was vital for the immediate future of the domestic game—with time on their side, NZF could properly deliberate over the next national league product, ensuring all factors could be thoroughly considered, and shortcomings from previous projects could be analysed and subsequently addressed. As a result, the governing body managed to formulate a more robust plan than it had done in previous years, which outlined the parameters of a new ‘Football Championship’ league.

Once again, New Zealand’s top-tier would be a ‘closed shop’, but this time would adopt a franchise model. This system, which is most famously deployed across most elite American sports leagues (including the MLS), demands that the operational structure and characteristic nature of participants is reflective of a business entity rather than a typical football club—although one could argue that most contemporary football clubs are virtually ran as businesses, no longer acting as pillars of local communities, but prioritising the interests of board members/shareholders over fans.

Given that the league would be ultimately inaccessible to all but its inaugural members, a fierce bidding war for a place in the new competition ensued. With eleven applicants and just eight slots available, several would inevitably miss out. One of the three rejected sides, Olé Madrids, were so vexed by their rebuttal, they took their protestations to the courts. Madrids’ case cited that, unlike its own bid, applications from several other clubs did not meet the league’s pre-established criteria for successful candidates.

Although the case was eventually dropped prior to the launch of the first Football Championship season, it certainly left somewhat of a sour taste in the mouth—a competition which needed as much positive momentum as possible was off to an incredibly shaky start. Olé Madrids’ frustrations were not just the product of a failed bid for membership, they were also fuelled by a general resentment towards the way in which New Zealand’s domestic league structure had been mismanaged in recent decades, encapsulating the emotions felt by many of the game’s local stakeholders. Furthermore, their decision to pursue a legal course of action perhaps illustrates the tangible desperation of New- Zealand-based clubs to participate in a respectable, suitably competitive league. Of course, at this stage, there was no guarantee that the Football Championship would take off; however, most observers (for good reason), held genuine hope that the league could provide some semblance of order in an otherwise historically turbulent environment.

To a reasonable degree, this optimistic projection proved accurate.

The Football Championship generated a higher level of broadcasting and sponsorship revenue than any of the league programmes which had preceded it. With eight aspirational new franchises competing, there was greater media and spectator interest (Sky Sports became an official broadcasting partner), whilst a succession of companies purchased the league’s naming rights from the 2010/11 season onwards.  

Aside from a refreshed commercial impetus, the value and credibility of the league was also advanced in a less obvious way, with its committee members prepared to take bold, decisive action at key junctures. In 2013, the league revoked the membership of perpetual strugglers Youngheart Manawatu. After finishing at the foot of the Football Championship table for three consecutive seasons, and experiencing financial difficulties for a number of years (given their precarious situation, the club were made to re-apply for their league status in 2007, but duly fended off bids from rival franchises), Manawatu were ousted from the competition.

Furthermore, prior to the 2014/15 season, league organisers awarded Wellington Phoenix Reserves a protected league slot (an initiative replicated in the newly constructed National League); given the natural composition of a reserve side, this development enabled another batch of gifted young players to experience competitive top-flight football.

The impact was immediate. Given that Phoenix Reserves’ parent side competed offshore, one could be forgiven for assuming their incorporation into the league fold may be counterintuitive. The sole purpose of any reserve team is to operate in a way that provides benefit to a senior squad—would this responsibility ultimately devalue their contribution? Would they regularly sacrifice their ability to be competitive in order to supplement the efforts of a side competing on foreign soil? The answer to both questions, in short, is a resounding no. In reality, their participation would help to strengthen the Football Championship’s reputation in multiple ways. 

As a direct result of the club’s stature, and the notable strides Phoenix had made since its establishment and inception into the A-League in 2007, its reserve team were more than able to hold their own. Phoenix Reserves were extremely well-equipped in the playing department, able to field a combination of promising youngsters looking to make an impression, and first-team players in rehabilitation from injury or attempting to regain match sharpness. Furthermore, as a direct result of the Phoenix’s association with a competitive league, its second-string were able to deliver an attractive brand of football; the experience of facing tough A-League opposition naturally puts greater focus on driving performance levels, with superior coaching methods adopted as a result—both senior and reserve sides could prosper from this process. In a similar spirit, the playing philosophies championed by Phoenix Reserves would inspire other clubs to improve their approach, subsequently enhancing the quality and spectacle of the league.  

Their presence alone added a different dynamic to the league, which energised a fresh wave of media attention, and tapped into new audience demographics. Regular spectators of A-League football were able to gain a unique insight into the squad depth of a typical Australian top-flight side, and Wellington Phoenix fans were handed a secondary avenue to attend club fixtures—away games in this league would clearly be significantly closer to home.   

These tailwinds have been consistent since the 2014/15 campaign (inclusive of the rather odd 2021/22 season, whereby the Phoenix played under the guise of their feeder team, Lower Hutt City, in the South Central series), and therefore Phoenix have undoubtedly added value to New Zealand’s top-tier apparatus in recent years, whether in relation to the previous Football Championship, or the current National League.

Impressive innovation or familiar incompetence?

One of the driving factors behind New Zealand Football’s succession of failures has been the relentless tinkering of approach, as they grapple with the seasonality, size, regionalization, and regulatory principles of the country’s top-tier league— historically, the final product has always missed the mark, regardless of the strategy adopted by the governing body in addressing these critical elements or the chosen combination of characteristics.

However, early evidence suggests a more balanced, considered methodology has been used in the construction of the National League, which has materialised from the remnants of a horde of ill-fated projects. At least for now, the eternal question of whether to embrace a regional or national model, an issue which has lingered for decades, has been answered in a way that lends itself to compromise and common sense.

The National League format sees ten sides compete in a round-robin-esque competition throughout October to December, comprising qualifying clubs from three sub-regional leagues; four teams from the Northern League, three from the Central League, and two from the Southern League advance to this second phase. Wellington Phoenix Reserves assume the remaining tenth spot.

Those that find themselves in the league’s top two positions come the competition’s conclusion (in alignment to several previous historical league structures) will meet in a Grand Final to determine the overall winner. However, regardless of who emerges victorious, both clubs will be declared New Zealand’s representatives for the following season’s OFC Champions League: Oceania’s most prestigious club tournament.

In an effort to support the progression of the national side, teams must adhere to strict regulations on foreign signings. Clubs can register a maximum of five overseas players, as long as one of them is a native of an OFC-affiliated nation. Furthermore, in a bid to bolster playing opportunities for talented local youngsters, each side must include two players aged 20 or under within match-day starting line-ups. New Zealand Football hopes that the carrot of regular first-team football will be enough to retain the country’s top talent, deterring them from pursuing offers from clubs located on distant shores. 

The coronavirus effectively scuppered a smooth transition into this new space, with the inaugural 2021-22 National League season cancelled in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 transmission. Despite this, an impressive level of agility was demonstrated in finding somewhat of a workaround. With Northern League sides subject to local lockdown rules due to their geographical coronavirus alert level, a ‘South Central’ series, exclusively containing qualifying teams from the South and Central Leagues, replaced the planned national format for the competition’s opening campaign.

As a direct result of these efforts, there is genuine belief in the National League project, with stakeholders hoping this will provide an elusive turning point in New Zealand’s footballing discourse. Nevertheless, in order for the league to be proclaimed an outright success, it must do more than simply serve to enhance the spectacle, playing standard, and financial strength of New Zealand’s premier domestic competition—it must also have a positive impact on international performance. A country’s top-tier league should be designed with the development of the national side in mind, kitted out with structural mechanisms that function to harness the efforts of gifted youngsters, and raise the profile of talented local players. In New Zealand, this hasn’t previously been the case…..

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.