Footballers at an Auckland club that will be a FIFA World Cup training venue in two months highlight ongoing inequality in their pay, training and conditions. Helena Wiseman reports.
Norway's top female footballers will soon be based for the early part of the FIFA World Cup at an Auckland club that's treatment of its top women's team has prompted a sacking and threats of a walkout.
Western Springs AFC is in crisis, its top women threatening to leave for other clubs after their pleas for equality went unheeded. Yet the same club has received substantial public funding as an official training venue for the World Cup.
As a team training base, the club receives upgrades to playing surfaces, lights, changing rooms and facilities. Football hopes these upgrades will be part of the tournament’s lasting legacy for community football, particularly for girls and women.
Players of all genders will benefit. But the players of the Western Springs’ premier women’s side will likely be at other clubs if the legacy of these upgrades is felt.
Making the Western Springs' failures over its advancement of women's football more acute is that it is hosting the world's 12th-ranked Norwegian national team, which has for years been prominent in advocating equality in football.
In 2015, the team released a mockumentary satirising the everyday instances of sexism they experienced as athletes. The video went viral for its clever rebuttal of harmful stereotypes.
In 2017, Norway made global headlines when it paid male and female footballers equally. This amounted to an almost 50 percent increase in compensation for the women. The team has been European, Olympic and World champions.
Athletes from that same national team will, in around a month’s time, begin preparing for women’s football’s biggest event, at a club whose women’s team tried and failed to make their male club hierarchy recognise ongoing inequities over pay, resourcing, facilities and respect.
At the weekend, the NZ Herald published details of a letter sent by the Western Springs premier women’s squad to their club leadership.
The letter, coming after Springs players had experienced a variety of issues, including their male counterparts being given priority for training pitches, requested increased diversity among the key decision-makers on the club board.
But instead of a conciliatory response, the relationship between the playing group and club leadership broke down and the head (male) coach of the women’s team has been removed from his position. The board and playing group will now enter mediation.
Western Springs executive chairman Grant Ramsay says Western Springs remains “completely committed to the women’s game”. He said the board wanted a "constructive conversation” with the women’s side, acknowledging issues with the team could have been handled better.
Members of the team have told LockerRoom the letter reflected conversations with the club over many years. In March this year the team decided to write the formal letter because players felt it was more likely to secure action. Until that point, the team had felt their concerns were not being heard.
“Initially our concern was that we were falling behind other clubs in Auckland” one player said. “But as things progressed it turned to how can we support all girls and women at this club no matter their level.”
To reflect that broader focus, the team asked for increased diversity on the board, a women and girl’s working group, and a player representative to help create more transparency.
From the players’ perspective, these were realistic requests and they thought they could work alongside the club to make the improvements given Western Springs had ostensibly committed to supporting women’s football and improving diversity in club leadership.
However, the squad received a concerning reaction to their letter, including a request to have a conversation with the executive chairman being refused.
In the wake of last week's events, players from the premier league side have been evaluating their futures. The Western Springs side plays in the highest level of ‘grassroots’ club football other than the National Women’s League – the Northern Region Football League (NRFL). For these players, mid-season disruption has not been a step lightly taken.
A senior squad member said they feared recent events could affect players who struggle to find somewhere else to play football and damage their ability to be selected to represent New Zealand at age-group tournaments.
And the issues raised by recent events are not confined to Western Springs.
In some impressive careers, the players, who LockerRoom has agreed not to name, say they have faced issues wherever they have played. And they say since the story of their club's troubles was made public, the team has been contacted by players around the country expressing solidarity and their shared experiences.
A common theme is being forced to train on inferior pitches so that the men have access to the best fields.
A former player at Claudelands Rovers in Hamilton told LockerRoom that at one time, their team trained on Monday nights, just over 24 hours after their matches, to accommodate the men’s team to train on the main pitch. She also recalled that her team had to pick up shifts stock-taking in warehouses to self-fund trips to other cities for a knockout cup semi-final.
That player said her experiences showed the issues raised by the Western Springs side are ongoing and widespread.
Other players have discussed concerns about levels of investment in the women’s side at last year’s NRFL championship-winning Northern Rovers. An experienced player in the league said she had experienced unequal treatment to varying degrees in lots of clubs, no matter how her team was performing. She says one of her teams was “winning everything” – knockout cups and leagues – and still faced comments from male players that they did not deserve equal treatment. “The entire football ecosystem is broken,” she told LockerRoom.
A former player from the Waikato region said women’s club footballers in this country are often forced to move clubs often, seeking incremental improvements in their playing conditions. She recalled a large number of players moved from Claudelands Rovers to Hamilton Wanderers a few years ago because they felt like they might get fairer treatment.
“It’s hard to feel club loyalty,” the player said. “I think back then we often didn’t speak up because we didn’t know how. I think a lot is changing with the World Cup in our backyard.
“We should say how brave [the Western Springs side] are,” she told LockerRoom, “for calling this out”.
The Western Springs players emphasise they are asking for solutions. They say speaking out has taken a toll.
“This has been a heavy burden to carry for all of the women involved in this fight. The girls were made to feel they didn’t have pride in the club because they were engaging in these conversations” a senior player said. But the team’s focus has always been on working to make things better, and they were asking for the same resources men’s footballers received to do so.
“We wanted to leave the landscape of women’s football in a better place,” players said, “and make sure the young girls playing at the club today don’t have to have these same conversations in 10 to 15 years’ time”.
“We felt this was the only way to be heard."
The club has two statements to members about the controversy on its website. One, in Ramsay's name, announces the departure of the premier women's team head coach Ryan Faithfull, who backed his team's concerns. "We have different views on the approach to the girls’ and women’s programme. The time is right for the club and Ryan to pursue new directions."
The other statement is attributed to Ramsay and the junior and senior division chairs. It confirms the club seeks a process of mediation with the senior players.
"We want to assure all members that the club is completely committed to the women’s game and a long-term plan to develop the girls’ and women’s programme. The breakdown in the relationship with the Premier Women’s team is a disagreement on how we get closer to parity for the women’s programme and how fast.
"The club acknowledges that the issues raised by the women’s team could have been handled better. We are an amateur club run by volunteers who give up many hours a week to fundraise, maintain the facilities and organise games. These volunteers have found it difficult to reach an understanding on these complex matters with the women’s team.
"Pay parity and support for women’s sport is a global issue across all codes and this has now come to our doorstep."
After the current own goal, the next on Western Springs' doorstep will be an international football side that is a flagbearer for equality in the women's game.
* The Football Ferns face Norway at Eden Park in the opening match of the World Cup on July 20, as part of a group also including the Philippines and Switzerland.