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From Nelson Mandela using the Rugby World Cup as a means to unite a nation, to Marcus Rashford utilising his platform to speak up and challenge the UK Government, there have been numerous examples of sport being used as a tool for good over the years.
While New Zealand may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of association football, one organisation is using the beautiful game to support the country’s indigenous population.
The Māori people have suffered from social upheaval, disease, racial abuse, discrimination and neglect since the arrival of European settlers in the 1800s, and though their population, language and culture have seen a welcome revival since the 20th century, Māori still face significant social and economic struggles within their homeland. As with many areas of life in their native country, this disparity is clearly reflected in football.
Despite being one of New Zealand’s most popular sports, with remarkably high participation levels for both boys and girls, there is an absence of young Māori within these statistics.
So in 2008, a group of like-minded individuals came together to form Māori Football Aotearoa in a bid to use the game that they loved ‘to promote cultural and social inclusion’ and provide a space for Māori players to learn and develop skills that would benefit them both on and off the pitch.
When Founder and Chairman Phill Pickering-Parker first headed around the country searching for players to form a futsal team in 2008, he ran a series of ads on local Māori radio station looking for Māori footballers. In Northland, his call to action produced just two participants. One of those players was Daniel Cassidy, a self-confessed “average footballer, with lots of passion”, who now sits on the board of Māori Football Aotearoa.
“When I first heard the advert, I thought I was the only Māori playing football. The thing that really struck me was, this was a platform that has never existed before. An opportunity to engage Māori in to the game, but also to provide them with a platform to play on a national, and international, basis.”
In days gone by, football had never been promoted as a game for the masses in New Zealand, the rugby codes taking on that mantle, while association football was the preserve of the upper classes. As a result, young players from Māori backgrounds have not always had access to the “global game”, and those that did felt that there heritage was something best kept quiet.
“In the past, we’ve probably had quite a few Māori playing football, but because it has been seen as not advantageous to call yourself Māori, especially within the sporting scene, no one ever highlighted it, and in fact, there have been players who have actively kept it under wraps for a very long time.” Said Cassidy.
“New Zealand has an abundance of national and regional footballing academies, but in these instances it’s very much a case of ‘Mohammed has to go to the mountain’, where at Māori Football Aotearoa, we are ‘taking the mountain to Mohammed’. By going out in to the neighbourhoods and the communities, we’re reaching young players who may not be able to access these facilities or know they even want to play the game at all.”
A huge turning point for football in New Zealand was the successful qualifying campaign of the New Zealand national side. 35,194 filled the stands at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington to see their country defeat Bahrain 1 – 0 and secure their place at the 2010 World Cup.
Despite failing to make it out of the group stage in South Africa, the All Whites caught the eye of the footballing world, picking up draws against Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay to bow out of the tournament undefeated.
Just two years in to their journey, this “was a huge profile lifter” for Māori Football Aotearoa, boosted by the fact that the squad contained four Māori players; Jeremy Christie, Winston Reid, Rory Fallon and Leo Bertos.
“The genesis of all of this goes back to that World Cup in South Africa,” says Cassidy. “Phill was taken to South Africa as a Māori representative, to make sure the Māori boys were well. Through that period there, he had conversation with those boys about what we wanted to do, creating opportunities for young Māori players and to ensure they had something to follow.”
Pickering-Parker returned from South Africa with their support, and young Māori finally had footballing idols that they could recognise, emulate and aspire to be like. All four players remain involved to this day, acting as ambassadors and board members.
Providing an opportunity for young people to play the sport is just a small element of their work, and it is the cultural and educational elements of the organisation that ensure Māori Football Aotearoa truly transcends the game of football.
Built upon a foundation of social inclusion and guided by the four key principles of Kaitiakitanga (Guardianship), Whakawhanaugatanga (Connectivity), Kaiwhakamana tōrangapū (Political Advocacy) and Kāwanatanga (Governance), they are using sport as a means to heal the wounds of the past and build a better future for Māori, both as players and people.
“Many of the Māori players that are currently involved in the game are hugely disconnected from their Māori heritage. A huge part of the education we do at Māori Football is helping build an identity for them. In the past, being Māori has not been helpful; in fact it has hindered people. The amount of racial abuse and misunderstanding that has happened in the past has driven that. Our education programme really is just re-introducing them to themselves really.
Players, and even some of our coaching staff, hadn’t really done any research in to their roots. One of our men thought he was Ngāpuhi (a Māori iwi from Hokianga, Bay of Islands and Whangerei area of Northland) but he was actually from the iwi next door, Ngātiwai. This speaks to the amount of disconnection and speaks for the need of our education programmes to reawaken those connections for them.”
Providing opportunities for those already with a link and understanding of their heritage is also vital.
“We have to keep finding those kids who are connected, and have traditional Māori values, or modernised traditional values, and bring them in to the game. A lot of those iwi and hapū that have those deep connections still do not get an opportunity, because they are so far from the main centres (Auckland and Wellington).”
On top of their inspiring grassroots development and educational work, Māori Football Aotearoa have created a domestic development pathway, with the aim of producing players who can compete in the club game and go on to represent Māoridom on the international stage; be that for the All Whites, or one of their four Māori representational sides.
“We want to be the best, and breed the belief that we can move forward and succeed.” Says Cassidy.
“We have players in the National League (New Zealand’s domestic top flight competition) and playing club football, but what (we’re seeing) now is players who would qualify for our sides are unavailable for selection, as their either overseas or playing at levels where the clubs won’t release them.”
Māori Football currently field four sides; Ngā Tane Whanakopiri (Senior Men), Ngā Wahine Whanakopiri (Senior Women) and two youth sides for boys and girls aged 16 and under. They currently compete against each other in the North vs South Series, and at an international level, in events such as the Pacific Series, the Tahiti Festival-des-Iles and a Trans-Tasman clash against the Australian First Nations Mariya.
“We see ourselves as a small part of the world, but we want to be a significant contributor to football. Football is a global game, and we are part of that global stage, and we want to produce players that can stand up there in confidence.”
Unlike the New Zealand Rugby Union’s Māori All Blacks, no official partnership currently exists between Māori Football Aoteroa and their sports governing body, New Zealand Football. However, there has been a growing connection and collaboration between the two organisations as they both work towards the goal of increased participation from the Māori community.
“That is essentially what we are set up to do. We want to engage young players but we want to release them in to the wider world and strengthen our nation’s game. They are seeing Māori engagement overall increasing in their figures, and that’s being measured, whereas in the past the management and measurement of the ethnicity of players has never happened.”
As well as helping to benchmark their work, Māori Football Aoetearoa news stories now appear on the NZ Football website and social media platforms, and the governing body helped them to record and live stream ‘North vs South Celebration of Football’ on Facebook.
Like everyone else, Māori Football Aotearoa has felt the impact and disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, though as the world slowly begins to return to normal Cassidy shares his hopes that the teams can once again test themselves and share their messages of inclusivity on an international stage.
“Internationally, we’d love to, as the world opens up, have the opportunity to come and compete, meet other people and share what we do on the global stage. No matter what happens on the pitch, strengthening our relationship with other indigenous communities around the world is key.”
Whether that occurs in the form of self-organised tournaments like the ‘Clash of Cultures’, or that they follow the example of other pacific representative sides like Kiribati, Kanaka Pōwāwae (Hawaii) and their Trans-Tasman rivals the First Nations in joining the alternative global governing body CONIFA remains to be seen.
One thing is abundantly clear. With Māori participation on the rise, the latest Māori male and female senior squads brimming with players with both international and domestic top-flight experience, and with Māori players getting their opportunity in the Wellington Phoenix’s A League squad, the work Māori Football Aotearoa has done over the last 12 years is paying dividends.
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