CRAIG STEPHEN retraces the difficult history and development of football in New Zealand, against the backdrop of rugby’s overwhelming popularity and missed opportunities at various stages.

New Zealand has had football teams since the late 19th century, but the sport has largely been in the shadow of rugby.

This fondness towards the oval ball sport can largely be attributed to the rugby-lovers of the Home Nations getting off the mark far quicker – the first known rugby match kicked off in May 1870 in Nelson, on the top of the South Island, three decades after the first European settlers arrived. It soon spread throughout the colony.

The sport also had a coincidental, but fortunate, connection to Māori, whose own game, ki-o-rahi, was said to resemble both Australian League Rules Football (itself a variant of Gaelic Rules Football) and rugby.

During the century, players and clubs often switched between the four ball sports, or played hybrid forms before there was clear blue water between the codes.

Regular association football matches can be traced to the early 1880s, and the Canterbury Association Football Club organised its first game in April 1882. The oldest surviving club, North Shore United, was founded in 1886; by mid-1887 Auckland had 13 clubs.

The Wellington Football Association was formed in 1890 and the following year ran its first championship, which was contested by four clubs and won by Petone. The facilities were primitive. English migrant Harry Power recalled an 1894 visit to “the old Thorndon Recreation ground to see Diamond and Thorndon in action on a hard piece of turf with a concrete pitch in the centre.”

By 1891 a New Zealand FA had been set up, in Wellington.

The first recorded provincial match was that between Canterbury and Otago at Lancaster Park, Christchurch in May 1890, drawing a crowd of 5,000. From 1892 these provinces, joined by Auckland and Wellington, competed annually for the Brown Shield.

Beginning of a long rivalry

With the sport gaining a foothold around the country there was enough support for a national team, and that made its first foray, on 23 July 1904, against a New South Wales state team in Dunedin.

The Kiwis lost by the game’s only goal, but drew with the same team 3–3 in Wellington seven days later. The following year the team embarked on a tour of Australia, during which they played 11 representative sides, including three “test matches” against New South Wales. The sides shared a win apiece, with one drawn.

War and isolation dispelled any notion of further matches, and a New Zealand national team did not play again until June 1922, with three official full home internationals against Australia. New Zealand won twice, both by 3–1, with a 1–1 draw in Wellington.

Significant developments occurred in the 1920s that revolutionised the game.

The silver cup

The boom in football coincided with the introduction of the Chatham Cup in 1923, a knockout tournament that has been held every year except 1937, due to a lack of entries, and 1941–44.

Seacliff – first winners of the Chatham Cup in 1923. Image via New Zealand History

The trophy – a silver replica of the FA Cup – was presented to the NZFA in 1922 by Captain C.B. Prickett on behalf of the crew of the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Chatham, as a mark of appreciation for the hospitality they had received during its tour.

Only a few clubs entered that first competition with the bulk of it organised on a geographical basis, with the final to be a North Island vs South Island affair (as it would be each year until 1970). Wellington YMCA defeated five rival teams in the North Island section, but Seacliff had an easier route, crushing the only other South Island entrant, Oamaru Rangers 7-0.

The final was played at Wellington’s Athletic Park on 1 October on a pitch described as “like lightning”. According to New Zealand Truth, the game was “a bright exhibition, with Seacliff always having the whip hand. The whole team played with machine-like precision, and it was a treat to see the way they combined.”

They were able to convert that precision, winning 4–0.

But that was as good as it got for the Otago side. The club reached the next two Cup finals, and in 1929, but lost them all.

Those early Chatham Cup finals featured an array of worker-based clubs, such as Harbour Board, Tramways and Waterside, whose ranks were bolstered by British migrants. One such club, Tramuwera (a cheeky combination of Tramways and the Auckland suburb of Manurewa) lifted the trophy in 1931.

In 1926, a new Football Association Trophy became the symbol of provincial supremacy. This was contested, mostly under a challenge system, until 1967.

It largely superseded the Brown Shield, which was mainly held on a challenge basis, until its eventual demise in 1997. In addition, 15 inter-island matches were played between 1920 and 1967.

Despite all these competitions there was no national league, and that wouldn’t change until the 1970s.

Thousands of players, but no national league

This was surprising given that by the mid-1920s football boasted 460 clubs – second only to rugby’s 670. It had around 6,000 players, making it New Zealand’s third-most popular men’s team sport after rugby and cricket. But its surge was temporary and rugby would continue to hold sway in the hearts of Kiwis.

Nor were there many international matches to inspire domestic players. Following the 1922 trans-Tasman series, a return series took place in Australia in 1923 with New Zealand again coming up trumps, winning two games to the Aussies’ one. There would be a gap of four years to a series against Canada around New Zealand. And in the 1930s New Zealand played only two series, both against Australia, but the momentum had swung, with the Aussies winning all six matches, the last three, all in July 1936, being decided by scores of 7-1, 10-0 and 4-1.

After the war, they were easily overcome by South Africa in four matches, and Australia in another four-match series.

Other than these visits, the only experience of how football was played in other countries came via visits by Chinese Universities in 1924, and England Amateurs in 1937.

The national association joined FIFA in 1948, and was a founder member of the Oceania Football Confederation in 1966.

In the 1950s the national team ventured out to the Pacific, enjoying their few victories of this era, against the New Hebrides, Fiji, New Caledonia and Tahiti.

Club sides would also come to these shores: FK Austria were the first, in 1957. Four years later, an English FA XI led by Tom Finney handed out a footballing lesson to their Antipodean cousins, while Manchester United came in 1967.

It wasn’t till 1964 that New Zealand made its first major overseas tour – a 15-match extravaganza which took in Asia, England and Europe, finishing in the United States.

International debut in war-torn Vietnam

This may have prepared them for their first international tournament of note, the Quoc Khanh Cup in war-torn Vietnam, which featured Australia, the hosts, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand.

This tournament would show them, the Vietnamese thought: if the Republic can host a sporting event at the height of the war, it proves that we’re open for business.

Choppers fly low over the Vietnam countryside

It was something of an adventure for the Kiwis: the Viet Cong made an abortive attempt to blow up their slum hotel, fighting was raging all around and the sound of howitzers was audible from the city’s main stadium.

Future All Whites legend, Brian Turner, then a 17-year-old schoolboy making his first turn with the national team, recalls hearing a big explosion while his squad was sitting having dinner.

“Apparently, someone had come past and a bomb had exploded 60 or 70 metres from where we were. It was that close.”

After training at a South Korean army camp just outside Saigon, some brave sorts would encamp on the hotel roof at night to witness fighter planes dropping bombs in the distance.

“You’d hear this big ‘whoosh’. They had dropped their bombs and carried on,” said Turner.

Seven of the 18-strong New Zealand squad fell violently sick to food poisoning just hours before their critical group match against South Vietnam, and, inevitably, lost, 5-1. Sixteen-year-old Dave Taylor was rushed to hospital, where he stayed for three weeks, and was lucky to survive.

While its objectives may be faulted, the tournament attracted big crowds, with a reputed 20,000 at the Australia-New Zealand affair on the second day, won 5-3 by Australia. While there was a tangible fear of mines underneath the grass, it was the state of the pitch that caused problems, heavy rain having turned it into a mudbath.

Like the Australians – who won the title beating South Korea in the final – the New Zealand squad was largely inexperienced with a mixture of old heads. They blooded teenagers Turner and Taylor but brought veteran Paul Rennell out of international retirement, and also had Ken France, who once played at England youth level with Bobby Moore. Former Nottingham Forest midfielder Tommy McNab captained the 18-man squad.

New Zealand was experiencing its first taste of football against Asian sides and while they failed to progress beyond the opening hurdle, the tournament set them up for the ultimately unsuccessful World Cup play-off against Israel.

A new adventure

This was the All Whites’ first crack at the competition, despite being a FIFA member for 21 years. They were paired with Israel and North Korea in an Asia-Oceania section that included another pariah of the world stage, Rhodesia. But, rather than play in Israel, the North Koreans withdrew.

The learning curve started high: the Israelis won 4-0 in Tel Aviv on 28 September 1969 and 2-0 in the same city three days later.

They would finish last of four teams in the 1974 qualifying campaign, drawing three and losing three games, and finishing second behind Australia in the following campaign during which they recorded their first-ever wins, a pair of 6-0 victories over another outcast nation, Chinese Taipei.

Incidentally, while the famed rugby side (from which they partly take their name), and every other national team expect the cricketers, wear black tops, the All Whites wear their own colour because FIFA once barred black as that was the preserve of referees.

From the 1970s the game grew with an increase in player numbers.

And there was, finally, a move to create a national league.

After a brief experiment in 1962-63 – when four regional club champions clashed for the Rothmans Cup – an eight-club National League was launched in 1970, with Auckland’s Blockhouse Bay lifting the inaugural trophy.

The National League flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s, often drawing 5,000 to 10,000 spectators to a match. Mt Wellington and Christchurch United shared 12 of the 23 titles decided between 1970 and 1992.

Undoubtedly, the new league helped the country qualify for its first World Cup – and the affections of New Zealanders, at a time when rugby’s star was falling.

The long road to Spain

Victories in friendly matches against Australia (1-0) in 1979 and Mexico (4-0) and South Korea (1-0) the next year suggested that New Zealand might finally have a side capable of taking on the best in Oceania and Asia. Coach John Adshead and his assistant, Kevin Fallon, both poms, brought together a talented, hard-working squad that included the experienced Brian Turner, Bobby Almond and Adrian Elrick, former English professionals Steve Sumner and Steve Wooddin, and younger players such as Grant Turner, Duncan Cole, and teenager Ricki Herbert.

The marathon campaign began on Anzac Day 1981 with a hard-fought 3–3 draw with Australia at Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland. It was suspected that the Aussies were saving something for the return leg, but, at the Sydney Cricket Ground a month later, goals from Wooddin and Grant Turner sealed a stunning 2-0 win.

In their other matches, New Zealand easily saw off Fiji (including a 13-0 thrashing), Indonesia and, at home, Chinese Taipei, with a frustrating, scoreless draw on a sub-standard pitch in Taiwan being the only blip in those matches.

In those eight initial matches, the Kiwis scored 31 and conceded just three. With rugby’s reputation tarnished by that winter’s divisive Springbok tour, the All Whites were capturing the imagination of the sporting public.

That was the easy part; China, Saudi Arabia and a Kuwait side coached by Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Parreira, awaited them in the Asian stage. The All Whites began with a 0–0 draw in Beijing but then beat the Chinese 1–0 in Auckland, thanks to a header from Herbert.

On 10 October, however, the All Whites slumped to a 2–1 defeat to Kuwait in a match marred by controversial refereeing decisions and crowd trouble. A disappointing 2–2 home draw with Saudi Arabia the following month effectively meant the All Whites had to win their last two games.

In Kuwait, goals from Sumner and teenager Wynton Rufer looked to have secured a 2–1 victory, but the home team cruelly equalised in the final minute. The All Whites now had to beat Saudi Arabia by six clear goals in Riyadh to climb above China on goal difference.

In searing afternoon heat on an artificial pitch, New Zealand swept to a stunning 5-0 lead by half-time, with the veteran Brian Turner converting a vital penalty just before the break. Both sides had chances in the second spell, with a solitary strike from the Saudis all that was needed to put the visitors out, but they held on.

This left New Zealand and China equal on points and goal difference. The 24th and final spot in Spain would be determined by a play off in Singapore on 10 January 1982. It was a neutral venue, but with a large Chinese population on the island-state, the 60,000 crowd was overwhelmingly pro-China. Despite the sapping humidity, the All Whites went 2–0 up with goals from Steve Wooddin and Wynton Rufer. China pulled one back but couldn’t grasp another and the New Zealanders had famously qualified.

Grupo de la muerte

Very little was expected of New Zealand in Spain, and even less was anticipated when the draw was made, pairing them with the Soviet Union, Brazil and Scotland, then littered with world-class stars such Kenny Dalglish, Joe Jordan and Graeme Souness.

And this was before influential midfielder Grant Turner was ruled out of the tournament after injuring himself in a practice match six days before the opening game.

Against Scotland, Adshead dropped a bombshell by leaving out Richard Wilson, who played in all 15 qualifying matches, leaving the keeper distraught, as well as Brian Turner (unrelated to Grant), who had scored nine times in qualifying.

For New Zealand football fans raised on a diet of British football through TV shows such as Big League Soccer or publications such as Shoot, Scotland was a mouth-watering opponent in the first game in Malaga. But they were soon brought down to earth as Dalglish and John Wark (with two) opened up a 3–0 half-time lead.

After the break, New Zealand shocked the Scots, pulling back two goals with strikes from Sumner and Wooddin. Scotland might have received a shock, but their class told as they pulled away to a 5-2 win, with goals by John Robertson and Steve Archibald, like almost all the side playing for top sides in England.

Their next foes, the Soviet Union, featured former European footballer of the year, the Ukrainian Oleg Blokhin, and several other world class ‘amateurs’. New Zealand held their own in the first half, without converting, and paid for their creative limitations, as Yuri Gavrilov netted to put the “Russians” as they were dubbed, despite being comprised of several nations, a goal up before half-time.

Blokhin and fellow Ukrainian Sergei Baltacha added one apiece to give the USSR a three-nil win.

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In the glamour game against Brazil, the All Whites faced the likes of Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Eder. Zico opened the scoring with a memorable overhead kick and added a second in his side’s 4–0 victory; Falcao and Serginho adding one apiece. Adshead later described the Brazilian players as being from another world, and he wasn’t far off the mark.

While the New Zealanders left without even a point, they had gained a lot of respect.

Missed opportunity

In the aftermath of New Zealand’s qualification, numbers playing the game sky-rocketed, particularly at junior level. This sudden surge of interest caught those involved in football on the hop, and little was done to fully capitalise on this country’s greatest footballing achievement.

The most important development was the Centres of Excellence programme which helped to shape the U-17 team that qualified for the 1997 age group World Cup finals in Egypt.

Such success eluded the senior side, which flopped behind Australia and Israel in the two subsequent qualifying campaigns, and in the 1994, 1998 and 2002 campaigns the New Zealanders were dismissed by their long-time rivals in three successive play-off ties. Worse came in the 2006 tournament when unfancied Vanuatu defeated them 4-2, to deprive them of even the customary handshake at the end of another play-off defeat.

But with the Aussies gone, and Ricki Herbert at the helm, there was nothing to get in their way, and in November 2009, the All Whites beat Bahrain 1-0 in Wellington through a Rory Fallon header after a goalless draw in the Gulf state in the intercontinental play-off.

With a more cohesive and professional outfit than the 1982 crew, the All Whites approached the South Africa World Cup with some confidence, and left unbeaten following 1-1 draws against Slovakia – Winston Reid heading home a very late equaliser, and securing for himself a move to West Ham – and Italy, where the almost obligatory dodgy penalty saved the Italians’ blushes. They should’ve beaten Paraguay but a lacklustre performance resulted in a goalless stalemate and elimination.

The 2014 campaign saw them paired with Mexico, who, despite being woeful during the regional qualifiers that saw them go through four managers, were still far too good over two legs, which was effectively over in Mexico City after a 5-1 victory.

The odds are better this time around, as Anthony Hudson’s side have comfortably qualified for the Oceania play-offs later in the year, likely to be against either Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands, with an expected tie against a South American side in November to get to Russia.

The World Cup woes while Australia blocked their way were not mirrored in the Confederations Cup with the All Whites knocking out the Aussies to get to both the 1999 and 2003 Cups, where they failed to win a single point, and also in 2009, and the forthcoming tournament this summer.

Domestically, the National League struggled in the late 1980s as a lack of sponsorship and falling attendances stretched clubs’ finances and the league was wound up in 1992.

The league was split into regional competitions with national play-offs. Between 1993 and 2003 these competitions were dominated by Napier City Rovers and Waitakere City, both winning three titles, along with Auckland’s Central United and Wellington’s Miramar Rangers with two each.


In 2004-05 the top level of domestic football was transformed by the introduction of a new summer competition. The New Zealand Football Championship was contested by eight newly-created regional or city ‘franchises’ such as Team Wellington and Hawke’s Bay United. It has been dominated by Auckland City and Waitakere United, but Team Wellington have snapped the big city’s dominance winning the two most recent Grand Finals.

Finishing in the top two provides a bonus of automatic qualification for the Oceania Champions League, which has also been dominated by the two Auckland franchises. Victory means entry into the lucrative Club World Cup, and in 2014 Auckland City defied expectations by beating more-fancied African and Central American clubs to finish third.

While the 1982 golden side featured semi-pros from the UK and home-grown players, subsequent sides have featured players based around the globe, including a handful signed by EPL teams.

Lee Norfolk was the first New Zealander to play in England’s top division when he appeared for Ipswich Town in 1995, and he was followed by Danny Hay at Leeds United.

Ryan Nelsen played 172 games for Blackburn Rovers, where he was the captain and also played for Tottenham Hotspur and QPR. Winston Reid (West Ham) and Chris Wood (West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City) have also played in the EPL.

Some players have starred in other European leagues, most notably Wynton Rufer in Switzerland and Germany, and Ivan Vicelich in the Netherlands.

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Rufer won a German league title and two German Cups with Werder Bremen, and scored in Bremen’s victory in the 1992 Cup Winners’ Cup final. He scored 224 times in more than 500 club matches.

Over the past 18 years, a New Zealand side has taken on the Aussies in their own competition.

The Football Kingz were the first to venture into the trans-Tasman dawn, in 1999, with Rufer as player-coach. In the then Australian National Soccer League they finished no higher than eighth, in an initial 16-team division.

With the ANSL reshaped as the A-League, the Kingz also received a make-over, as the New Zealand Knights.

The Knights were dismal, on and off the field, and were replaced by the Wellington Phoenix in 2007. Despite some financial difficulties in 2011 and moves by the governing body to seriously limit their licence, threatening the franchises’ very existence, the Phoenix have achieved a degree of on-field success with three play-off appearances since 2004. They finished ninth of 10 teams in two of the last three seasons but have made some improvements this season with a slim chance of making the play-offs.

With the Confederations Cup looming, and a likely World Cup showdown later in the year, 2017 is shaping up to be a stellar year for the All Whites, and with the youth groups getting World Cup experience and more and more players featuring in Europe, Asia and North America, New Zealanders seem set for a bright future.