Former Football Fern Sarah Gregorius on the fight for equality in professional sport.
Growing up, I was never short on examples of sporting role models. With world-class stadiums on the doorstep in Wellington, as well as my local football clubrooms and a large sports field next to my house, I could hone my skills against my neighbourhood’s best, and watch some the of world’s best go up against each other.
As a kid, I remember being told that the All Whites squad were going to be making an appearance at my local football clubrooms one afternoon for a meet and greet before an international match. How cool! I grabbed a marker and headed along – picking up a poster and collecting as many autographs as I could. It was an afternoon well spent, and the poster remained on my wall for years.
I also remember, not long after, training with my local U-14 rep team and a Football Fern coming down to observe and assist with our training session. I was star-struck – but not in the same way I was when I met the All Whites.
Here, in front of me, was the person I dreamed I could be.
Here, in front of me, was the person I dreamed I could be. Here she was, in the flesh. Someone that I could look up to, that I could relate to. A real-life female international footballer. I hung on every word she said and I never forgot that afternoon as well, but for so many different reasons.
Looking back, this was the first time I recognised that male and female athletes were treated differently. There was no fanfare when the Football Fern came along – no big bus, no posters of her and her teammates, no hype, and no attachment to a massive international match being played in one of our local world-class stadiums.
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Unfortunately, this was not where the recognition of those differences ended. In my own international career as a Football Fern, and in my professional club career in Europe and Asia, I saw these differences at every turn.
Now, however, we have an opportunity to change a part of that. The Professional Footballer’s Association has entered into negotiations with New Zealand Football for a single Collective Agreement that gives both the All Whites and Football Ferns, the men and the women representing New Zealand at the highest level, equal conditions across the board.
The major change this agreement would make is to raise make the travel entitlements of the Football Ferns the same level as the All Whites. Those who play professionally in the top leagues in Europe, for example, would travel back to New Zealand in business class as the All Whites do, affording them physiologically the best preparation to perform when they arrive. Under the current arrangement, the Football Ferns travel economy class.
This may seem a small step, but symbolically, it is huge. This agreement would be a world first. An opportunity for New Zealand, and for football in New Zealand, to forge a new path.
This agreement does not address all the widespread inequality that exists in football. What it does mean though, is that our best female footballers won’t face inequality in all their experiences playing the game.
The struggle is real, and genuine, in professional clubland. But, when you represent your country and you wear that Fern, you are treated the same no matter your gender. There is genuine equity in the opportunity to perform.
I’ve been asked what it feels like to play professional and international sport knowing that my experiences were so different to what a male in my position would have experienced. I would describe this feeling as a slow erosion. To not feel recognised or valued for your efforts continuously over time, to have to fight and scratch and claw for the dignity and respect so easily granted to someone else of the opposite gender doing the same job as you, wears you down.
A recent statistic by the global trade union of footballers, FIFPro, stated that well over 80 percent of female players considered leaving the game early due to the conditions that they face. This is staggering, and shows that over time inequality will grind you down, and possibly break you.
It is felt. It is damaging. It hurts.
But, here in New Zealand, we have an opportunity to make a change. An U-14 local rep player - the girl I was when I first fell in love with the game and aspired to go as far as possible - could now know that when she reaches the top, she will be treated the same as her male counterpart on his national team.
That is powerful. That is aspirational. And that is what we hope to achieve.
*Sarah Gregorius has 69 international caps for the Football Ferns and has played professionally in the UK, Germany and Japan.