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Merryn Anderson

Fern juggles player and coach roles

Football Ferns centurion Annalie Longo has been busy while sitting on the sidelines recovering from an ACL injury. Photo: Getty Images

Adding to her extensive CV, Annalie Longo’s new coaching role is helping her Football Ferns career - as she strives to play in her sixth FIFA World Cup.

Annalie Longo has become not only an expert juggler with a football, but also with her career.

A current Football Ferns centurion, a coach and commentator, she's also the women’s development manager at New Zealand Football. 

But when the chance to be part of the Te Hāpaitanga women's coaching initiative came up - to add another element to her juggling act - she couldn’t say no. 

“Has it fallen on the busiest year I could have of my life? Yes,” Longo laughs. 

“Did I anticipate that I was going to do my ACL and try and make a World Cup squad and have a full time role at New Zealand Football? No.

“But I think sometimes you can’t turn down these types of opportunities.” 

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Longo tore her ACL in a Football Ferns game against Mexico last September, beginning a race against time to be back and fully fit for the FIFA Women’s World Cup beginning in July. 

“If you had asked me probably a year and a half ago, the ultimate dream was to go to a home World Cup and retire on what would have been a full circle moment with me,” Longo says. 

Now it's touch and go, with the opening match just over two months away. But she is doing all she can to make it happen. 

Longo has 127 Football Ferns caps. Photo: Getty Images

Longo made her Football Ferns debut in 2006, aged just 15, and became the youngest New Zealand player to make a senior international team - men’s or women’s. 

The midfielder was part of the inaugural U17 Women’s World Cup, hosted in New Zealand in 2008 and scored New Zealand’s first goal of the tournament. 

The chance to close out her playing career in similar fashion is still there: Longo back in the Ferns camp this month, but building her way up to the “big carrot” of the World Cup. 

“Unfortunately things were taken out of my control and the last year has been a very different one than what I had hoped,” she explains. 

“For me, the first goal is to make that squad and be back on the field and hopefully one day represent New Zealand again.” 

The Ferns would love to have her experience, her 127 caps putting her fifth on the all-time most-capped list for the side - behind Ria Percival (also returning from an ACL injury), captain Ali Riley, recently-retired Abby Erceg, and Betsy Hassett. 

While Longo was on the sidelines, she was working full-time as NZ Football's women’s development manager, a role she’s had for more than a year. 

“A lot of my role is around the community side of the game, so around growing female participation, female coaches, female leaders, getting more females into administration roles, onto boards and things like that,” she explains. 

Currently just one in five football players in New Zealand are women, which inspired one of their latest programmes, Fantails. 

“Fantails is a junior participation programme, it’s providing a fun and safe environment for girls to come and try in more of a social setting,” Longo explains. 

“It’s based on not just football basics but a lot around movement. For me, what is really important is those life skills, so the ability for the girls to create friendships and networks as well as obviously play football and have fun.” 

Longo coaching girls in the new Fantails programme. Photo: Phototek

Longo has always had a passion for coaching, and applied for High Performance Sport New Zealand’s Te Hāpaitanga programme for their last intake. 

Te Hāpaitanga is a holistic programme designed to develop female coaches, giving them connections in the sector and helping them pursue high performance sport coaching. 

Longo missed out that year, but having the initiative highly recommended by friends and colleagues, she reapplied and became a member of the third intake. 

“Although coaching at the moment isn’t my direct focus, I think after the World Cup, it's something I’ll be able to concentrate on and put some time into,” she says. 

Her mentor is Tactix netball coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek, and Longo has already taken much away from the programme. 

“We’ve so far done one residential together as a group, and I came away feeling really enlightened and enthusiastic,” she says. 

“It certainly gives you a lot of energy when you’ve got a whole bunch of females in the room who are all very good at what they do in terms of coaching, and  are just so passionate about women in sport. I left feeling really empowered.” 

Longo is adamant her coaching experience helps her playing skills as well. 

“That’s probably the biggest thing that I think has helped my football career - is that knowledge of coaching,” she says. 

“The more you analyse and learn the game, it certainly helps you become an all-rounded player and now I’m just more aware of the four corners of the game. 

“Obviously the tactical side and technical side, but more how you communicate with players, how you drive players, learning about your players. Those things you kind of take for granted as a player, you don’t really realise. 

“Now I see just how important those relationships and networks are and creating a really good culture to be able to perform so I think coaching and playing goes together.” 

Longo could make her sixth senior World Cup this year. Photo: NZ Football

Longo’s in-depth knowledge of the game meant an opportunity in TV commentary, and a role presenting for Sky Sport came her way when recovering from her injury. “Add another thing into the mix,” she jokes. 

It was a silver lining from the injury, and she was assisted by experienced presenters. 

“It was a way that I felt I could still be involved in football and the team,” says Longo, who was at Eden Park when the attendance record for a women’s game in New Zealand was broken as 12,721 fans watched the Football Ferns take on the United States. 

“I would have loved to be on the pitch. But I think when you know you can’t be there, that it was never going to be physically possible to play, it was just nice to be part of celebrating, creating a bit of history.” 

She says she’s almost more nervous commentating than playing. “But I think, hopefully, I’ve got better and I’ve actually really enjoyed the experience.” 

Longo has stepped down to working part-time at New Zealand Football, to focus more on recovery and her goal of standing out in the middle at Eden Park on July 20 for the opening match of the World Cup. 

She’s trying not to put pressure on herself to be ready, but having played in five senior World Cups. she knows just how big the occasion will be for New Zealand.

“I can remember walking out of a hotel overseas, we were playing the Netherlands that game, and I saw a sea of about 35,000 fans travelling down the road, all in orange,” Longo recalls. 

“It was just a feeling of excitement, everyone was proud to be representing their country." 

With the colour, culture and energy a global tournament brings, Longo says the quality of football is its own showcase. 

“A lot of people wouldn’t have been able to witness women’s football in particular at this level, so it’s an opportunity for people to see and witness that in person. And obviously there’s some of the best players in the world here in New Zealand," she says.

“It’s certainly not an experience anyone would want to miss. We always talk about ‘I don’t think people quite know what’s coming to New Zealand’ and I still agree with that. 

“From having witnessed a few World Cups now, I’m certainly hoping the public don’t miss out on this experience because it truly is once in a lifetime.” 

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