By Joan Grey
Imagine it’s 1975. You’re in Hong Kong, about to walk onto the football pitch to face the host nation in front of a home crowd anticipating your defeat.
You’re the underdog. You haven’t ever played in an international football match before. In fact, no one in your team has.
Your recently-formed squad is about to make history as New Zealand’s first-ever female football team.
You’re kitted out in a green goalkeeping shirt and black shorts stitched by a local dressmaker, and laced up in your one and only pair of moulded boots.
The leather football lies in the centre of the field. You don your goalkeeper gloves made from material similar to the rubber facing of ping-pong bats, and you head towards the goal.
On August 25, 1975, Carol Waller played in goal in New Zealand’s first women’s international football match.
It was against host nation Hong Kong in the Asian Cup. Incredibly, New Zealand won that first game 2-0 and went on to win all their games and win the tournament.
Main photo: New Zealand’s Carol Waller dives at the feet of an Australian forward in 1975.
ON THE PITCH: How it all started …
A life in football began for Carol Waller in 1970 when she saw an advert in the New Zealand Herald seeking ladies interested in playing football in the Auckland area.
“I went to the training session. About 20 of us went along to play at a park in Kingsland,” says Waller.
By the end of the year, they had formed one of the first women’s football teams in Auckland, at Eden Football Club, that through future mergers would become today’s Auckland United.
In 1973, the Auckland Women’s Football Association was founded, and a women’s league with 10 teams was established.
Like present day, women’s football was played on Sunday mornings.
“There were no lights to play at night. The men and the juniors used the fields on a Saturday so we only got use the fields on a Sunday.
“Our coaches were volunteers with a passion for women’s football. It was either a boyfriend that played football or one of the senior men players would come help out.
“We trained once a week. Some of the girls played dual sports, they played a summer and winter sport, and were fit leading into the football season.”
There was no specialised goalkeeper training for Waller. “I went to training half an hour earlier and I’d work with the coach before everyone else came.”
“Technically, goalkeepers today are a lot better and I think today they are improving because they’re getting top-quality coaching,” Waller says.
New Zealand’s first national women’s team fundraised for weeks
In 1975, New Zealand was invited to enter a team in the Asian Cup Ladies Football Tournament in Hong Kong. To be able to go, the New Zealand Women’s Football Association was formed — a body required to represent women because the New Zealand Football Association would not register women players.
“They selected players from Auckland and Wellington and it was a real buzz because most of us knew each other through playing rep games,” Waller recounts.
The newly-formed team had no profile and supporter base, unlike today’s Football Ferns.
“We travelled with just a coach and manager and we were very self-sufficient.”
The players fundraised to obtain gear and cover travel costs.
“It felt rushed. We only found out the month before that we were going. We had to form a federation and get New Zealand Football’s permission to travel.”
After just two days of training together, New Zealand’s trailblazing team set off on the long journey from Auckland to Hong Kong.
They won their first match, against Hong Kong, 2-0.
Defying all expectations, they went on to win the entire tournament, beating Malaysia 3-0, Australia 3-2 and Thailand 3-1 in the Asian Cup final watched by 12,000 spectators.
Their stunning success in 1975 sparked attention to the women’s side of the game and forged the foundation of today’s women’s football in New Zealand.
Carol Waller, now 72, is revered as the first New Zealand female player to wear the #1.
OFF THE PITCH: Four decades of service to football
New Zealand international footballer, chairperson, treasurer, match commissioner, fixtures manager, liaison officer … Carol Waller’s involvement with football has defied boundaries.
Waller made history in 1975 as New Zealand’s first female goalkeeper. That year, New Zealand debuted in the Asian Cup Ladies Football Tournament, and the New Zealand team, with Waller in goal, won all their games to bring home the Cup.
As well as playing, Waller has dedicated more than 45 years to developing football in New Zealand, serving in a multitude of roles to advance the sport she loves so much.
In recognition of her enormous contribution to football, Waller was awarded the 2019 Friends of Football Medal of Excellence at the annual New Zealand Football Awards.
READ MORE: Click here to read about our Medal of Excellence recipients >>>>
Key achievements include being secretary of Eden Football Club from 1975 to 2007. She devoted 32 years to this role, while the club merged into Three Kings United and more recently, in 2020, amalgamated with Onehunga Sports to become Auckland United.
Countless roles for a crusader of the women’s game
An avid crusader for the women’s side of the game, Waller has held countless roles in female football development throughout her career, including chairing the New Zealand Women’s Football Association (NZWFA).
In 2001, FIFA required all teams competing on the international stage to have one association in charge.
Consequently, the NZFWA was absorbed into the New Zealand Football Association. Waller sees this as a turning point for the advancement of women’s football in New Zealand.
“New Zealand Football would appoint coaches to look after the day-to-day affairs of the national women’s side. Female players got to go into camps and got better coaching,” Waller says.
How Waller helped promote the concept of rolling subs
A career highlight for Waller was her enormous achievement in introducing rolling substitutes into New Zealand football to improve player development.
Waller managed the under-19 Auckland women’s representative team on a tour to the United States to contest the Dallas Cup in 1989. They stopped in Hawaii for friendly games and this was where Waller and the coach Barbara Cox first encountered rolling subs, the idea that substitute players could go back on the pitch.
Waller pushed hard, along with the Auckland Football Association, to get the rolling sub rule integrated into New Zealand football. It was first introduced in Auckland, beginning with the women’s game and later the junior and senior men’s teams, and finally, it filtered through the rest of New Zealand.
“Consider back then an 11-year-old subbed off for not playing well and they didn’t go back on. With rolling subs, the coach can talk to that player about doing things differently and they go back on the field and try it, and learn from it.”
Over the years, Waller has been instrumental in the organisation of the Weir Rose Bowl, the premier tournament for under 12 girls and boys teams in the top of the North Island.
“The Rose Weir tournament was such a thrill because I got to know the kids and I got to see them come through their football career and now some of them are playing in the All Whites or overseas,” she says.
Waller also managed Auckland’s age-grade teams in the national tournament.
On the international scene, Waller has served on FIFA Women’s Football and age-grade Women’s World Cup committees. She was Match Commissioner of the under-17 and under-19 Women’s World Cup matches held in Russia (2007) and Thailand (2006).
“That was six weeks away in those countries and it was a real highlight to be there overseeing those matches.”
Next year’s World Cup: ‘I think it will entice girls to play football’
Next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup will have a positive impact on female football in New Zealand, according to Waller.
“I think it will entice girls to play football. They will want to go out and give it a go. We’ve just got to capture them and keep them there.”
At 72, Carol Waller continues to contribute to football in the Auckland area. She crunches the numbers at East City Futsal and at Northern Region Football.
“I’ve had a really good life in football and enjoyed every minute of it. It becomes part of your life and it’s what I am, it’s what I do,” Waller says.
Waller’s dedication to the sport was recently celebrated when her historic 1975 goalkeeper shirt was framed and displayed in the Auckland United clubrooms along with a cherished photo of her 1975 team.
‘‘It was such an honour. It was my first goalkeeping shirt, the shirt I wore in the Asian Cup tournament and three ladies from that 1975 team were there to help put it on the wall.”
READ MORE: Click here for Ultimate Soccer’s list of Waller’s achievements >>>>
Friends of Football writer Joan Grey loves playing and writing about football. She captains the Strathallan College Girls First XI and represents Franklin United in the NRF Women’s Championship.
This special feature has been published in partnership with lockerroom, the website that specialises in coverage of women’s sports. Click here to visit lockerroom >>>>