Moana Maniapoto is still buzzing after discovering the so-called beautiful game during the soccer, sorry, football Women’s World Cup which ended a week ago.
It’s over now. But I feel like I’d only just got my groove on. I suspect there are others all across Aotearoa who felt the same. The FIFA Women’s World Cup stormed these shores, and I ended up wallowing in the wash.
I’m a happy, accidental convert sucked inside a big, warm bubble that bounced from game to game like a peachy-keen Barbie, leaving fun and laughter in its wake, from the pitch into the real world too. I’ve bonded with new people even from beyond these shores and it’s lovely.
Confession. I know bugger-all about this 11-players per team version of football. There are only two people in my life who are clued up about it. One is Greek, the other is German. It seemed like something people did in the far-off corners of Europe or Africa — not here where, not so long ago, we used to call it soccer. Maybe still do.
The thing is that I come from a rugby-obsessed family. If football appeared on the news and the cameras caught players lying on the ground wounded, or wincing as if they were, my lot would roll their eyes. “Typical,” they’d mutter. “Bloody Hollywoods.”
I suspect they thought football was a bit girly even though the sport was pretty much invisible in our lives. We’d barely heard of blokes playing, let alone women. But I knew of Pele and David Beckham. Also, Ronaldo, Harry Ngata and Wynton Rufer. I knew their names. Now I know Hannah Wilkinson. Mary Fowler and Sam Kerr too. Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe as well.
Queens, all of them. And others, too, who shone over the last month.
I’m an accidental convert because my cousin Ramon, who was supposed to fly across from Darwin to Auckland, asked if I wanted to be his plus-one at the opening match. I was keen to catch up with him and curious about how the launch might capture our cultures. I expected that the Māori and Indigenous Australian fusion would be good. But then I was sure that I’d zone out after that, as I do with anything involving a ball.
Ramon couldn’t come, so my kids and I ended up going. We walked across the road from my son’s whare to the stadium, flashed our tickets at the gatekeepers, then found ourselves ushered into a lounge and offered a glass of champers at the door.
Right. I started to feel right at home.
Didn’t know anyone in the very plush room but, if this was how they rolled, all good.
“Māmā, māmā,” whispered Daughter, flicking her eyes to the right. “Ko te PM tera?”
Holy! Yeah. There’s Chris Hipkins . . . eating.
Not long after, we spotted Jacinda and Simon Bridges, and another two Māori I knew as well. Oh, cool. And there was the prime minister. Eating again.
Turned out this was the VIP room. Imposter syndrome kicked in, so I grabbed a second champers on the way to our seats as the karanga rang out. After a stunning opening and a hearty, excited countdown inside the packed stadium, the whistle blew, and they were off.
Graceful. Elegant. Athletic and skilful. I couldn’t believe how speedy these wāhine were. Just when you thought they’d run out of steam, they’d dig deeper and pull something extra out of somewhere.
And how fit were they? Bloody fit.
Dr Google says a typical player covers between 10 and 16 kilometres per match. I watched them weave around the field like eels. They’d kick the ball for miles or tickle it away from the other team. Or maybe lose it to a crafty opponent.
And, whereas I’d run a mile from a ball making a beeline for my skull, these women seemed to relish the prospect of it bouncing off theirs. And the stuff they did with their feet and legs and other body parts! It was all so clever and fluid.
I had no idea about the rules. But I loved it.
Anyway, New Zealand won that opening game against Norway. And my daughter Manawanui and I discovered something fresh and delightful. “This is so much fun,” she said.
How come this was the first football match I’d ever watched? Pretty flash one too.
I banged into Jacinda. She was a bit teary. Told me it was a hell of a job getting the tournament to Aotearoa. FIFA is the worldwide governing body. That’s the Federation Internationale de Football Association and it’s a mega-corporate of juggernaut proportions with a toxic reputation. Understandably, the former PM was blubbery with pride, especially watching New Zealand nail that first game. Cream on the cake.
I mentioned that I’d be chairing a panel called Equalize: State of Play featuring her, Ruby Tui, American actor Natalie Portman, and FIFA’s general secretary Fatma Samoura.
Back home, I tried to forget about the panel which looked a bit flash. I was a bit worried that, seeing I know diddly-squat about football, I’d end up looking like an egg. Instead, I perched in front of the telly to watch the Warriors. I wanted to see if the vibe had rubbed off.
It hadn’t. Look at them, I thought, jumping all over and smashing each other. Stop-start stuff. Play the ball. Pass. Tackle. Play the ball. Pass. Tackle. Where was the flow? This isn’t the beautiful game, is it?
The next time I went into the stadium, I was with an American family who’d flown out to support the US women’s football team. My son introduced me to them.
Confession. I’m always a little on edge around Americans, hyper-vigilant for red flags. Trump, religion, guns. You know, all that stuff. But this family actively sought out my son. All they wanted to do was sit down and talk about Māori culture and New Zealand politics. They were well-travelled, students of history, and football fanatics.
We got on like a house on fire. They invited Manawanui and me to join them in the stand to watch the US play Portugal. Our young female companions were schooling us up on Megan Rapinoe, and how she and her teammates sued the US Soccer Federation for gender discrimination.
They told me about Alex Morgan (who was about to retire) and Julie Ertz (an Angel City player back on top only a year after giving birth). Obviously, these highly mobile wāhine on the field had been inspirational to the young American women in the stands.
I must admit that it was kind of unsettling to be surrounded by Americans chanting “USA, USA, USA”. But then it was contagious and soon I too was groaning whenever a chance for a US goal was lost. And then there was the way players from opposing teams sometimes comforted their opponents. That was lovely, and something I hadn’t seen in other sports.
What wasn’t so lovely that week was the group of anti-Jacinda protesters outside Aotea Centre. I hear that someone yelled: “Bugger off. We’ve come to celebrate sports.” The protesters apparently checked their signs into the coats facility and took to their seats for Equalize.
My 30-minute session with the fab four — Jacinda, Ruby, Natalie and Fatma — followed one-on-one interviews with each of them by the glam CNN sports anchor Amanda Davies. Natalie Portman was up last, so we hung together backstage. She is tiny. My slender 14-year-old was almost the same size.
In 2020, Natalie became one of the co-founders and investors in the majority female football ownership group that was awarded a new franchise in the NWSL, the national women’s soccer league. That club, Angel City FC, began playing in the American league in 2022 and has a number of high-profile owners including Serena Williams, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Garner and Eva Longoria.
Yet, every time I googled her name, up came gossip about her marriage break-up.
This is a woman who graduated from Harvard with a degree in psychology. Her football club has been pushing for pay parity with men. She’d also refused the equivalent of a Nobel Peace Prize from Israel (where she was born) in protest against their attacks on Palestinians. She’s no slouch.
Fatma Samoura, who was on deck as well, is no slouch either. Second in charge at FIFA, she described a perception of the organisation as “a middle-aged European man riding a limousine and stealing money”. That’s according to one survey she conducted.
I knew nothing about football or FIFA but recalled a big controversy around alleged bribery and corruption, as well as hypocrisy, around the decision to have the 2022 tournament hosted in Qatar. Radio New Zealand reported that human rights groups continue to push FIFA for compensation over the deaths of migrant workers.
I listened over the speaker to Amanda Davies teasing out gender equity with each guest. And I recalled that, any time I’d been on a panel, equity was always relating to Māori and indigeneity. That’s been the primary lens I’ve seen and experienced the world through. According to Ruby Tui’s book, Straight Up, it was pretty much the same for her — only Sāmoan style.
I was captivated by Ruby’s interview after winning the Rugby World Cup with the Black Ferns, our New Zealand team. She was charismatic and authentic.
I wanted to know from these four women how difficult it was to hold your authentic self when you’re a prime minister, a Hollywood star, or leading a global institution. I suppose there’s the politics of sport and the sport of politics.
I mucked it up introducing Jacinda. I was so used to addressing her as “Prime Minister”, that I switched mid-word to Jacinda — and it came out as a muddled “Pri-Cinda”. She laughed. There’s something about Aotearoa. It’s small and good at keeping our egos in check.
Jacinda described being at her local supermarket looking at the muesli bars when she was approached by an earnest stranger asking whether they could have a quick convo about the militarisation of the Pacific.
Ruby said that during one of her school trips to inspire students, one kid asked what she had in her pocket.
“My Olympic gold medal,” said Ruby.
“What a show-off!” said the student. The crowd laughed their heads off.
In her book, Ruby saw life through the lens of a girl who walked in two worlds — Pākehā and Sāmoan. She wrote about the trauma carried by her Sāmoan whānau, the layers of expectation — and the tikanga around her belonging and being.
I’ve been mulling over phrases and words like role models, diversity and inclusion for a while now with my mates, teasing out how a seat at the table may, in fact, simply legitimise the status quo and amount to no fundamental institutional change — leaving the machine to march on relentlessly. People talk about women breaking the glass ceiling, but I always remind them that many women and Indigenous peoples aren’t even in the room.
I asked Jacinda what needs to happen for people to understand the difference between equity and equality when it comes to Te Tiriti and power-sharing.
She insisted that the message needs to be framed around “fairness”, that New Zealanders are, at heart, more collective than individualistic — and that “there’s a reason why the number one show in the country is Fair Go”.
She was optimistic. And I love her positivity — despite the trauma for her of being described as a murderer day-in and day-out by the bitter and twisted who are still smarting over public health strategies designed to save and protect lives.
There were many special moments and comments that night, including replies to my final question: How do you become a good ancestor?
There was, for instance, Jacinda saying that women who get through the door should stick their foot in it and drag as many through as possible. Fatma saying she’s committed to ridding sport of racism. Natalie insisting she’ll fight for pay parity. And Ruby saying she wants to be the best she can so her descendants can be proud of her.
Everyone left the theatre feeling like their cups had been filled.
The following night, my daughter and I ended up at the football semis. A big and important looking group followed us. It included two escorts in military uniform. And Dame Cindy our Governor-General.
Manawanui and I entered the VVIP room. (Yep, there is such a thing). This time I ignored the champers on the tray and once again thought: Why am I here? I don’t recognise anyone.
Then I banged into the very sweet Robyn Tataurangi, one of many volunteers. And next there was this nice Sāmoan lady who recognised me from 14 years ago when we were both looking after our premature babies in the Auckland neo-natal unit.
I thought about the Jamaican-born teacher from New York who I had breakfast with at our local café — and a lovely couple from California. She works in public broadcasting and he teaches journalism while their daughters are university students studying history and psychology. So we had interesting conversations about politics, media and racism.
Thanks to the World Cup, a bunch of us realised that not all Americans are mad. And they’re struggling with what’s going over there in their country too.
“I get that all the time,” said Angel City co-founder and venture capitalist heavyweight Kara Nortman. “People saying how surprised they’ve been to meet Americans who are normal!”
I think of the two down-to-earth football playing legends I met outside Aotea Theatre and then again at the semis. Barbara Cox, who, as a football-mad kid, was told by her mum: “Ladies don’t play rugby.” And Barbara’s daughter Michele.
In 1987, during a tournament in Taiwan, Barbara and Michele ended up being the first and only mother-daughter combo to play in the world, while Michele’s dad Roy was the team manager, back when they were called SWANZ. Michele was a gamechanger herself off the field and one year visited 32 countries to promote the sport to women.
And as we left the stadium, me wearing my Angel City scarf and Manawanui toting a bag of complimentary poi and rain capes, I thought of the new friends I’d made. I remembered the fierce skill, aroha and action of the players — and how much me and my girl had enjoyed ourselves.
So that, even when the lights were turned off in the stadium, I felt like they really hadn’t gone out at all.
Moana Maniapoto is an award-winning singer-songwriter, documentary-maker, broadcaster and writer. She hosts top current affairs programme Te Ao with Moana on Whakaata Māori, and is a trustee of the Mana Trust which oversees E-Tangata.
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