Two of the biggest supporters of women’s football in Aotearoa New Zealand have been astonished at how the FIFA Women’s World Cup has taken the host nations by storm.
Wendi Henderson played for the Football Ferns in the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, as well as the 2007 tournament.
Her brother, Graeme Davidson, was part of the women’s game from an early age, and was FIFA’s Venue General Manager at Wellington Regional Stadium, which hosted nine matches in total.
Main photo: Graeme Davidson leads a tour of the Wellington Stadium, showing the facilities to (from left) Chief Women’s Football Officer for FIFA, Sarai Bareman, FIFA Secretary-General Fatma Samoura and NZ Football President Johanna Wood. Photo credit: FIFA.
“Some of my earliest memories are being dragged along to Hutt Valley Park on a Sunday morning to watch my sister play,” says Davidson, who grew up amongst the Football Ferns of the 1980s.
“I didn’t have much choice.
“It was like having 15 big sisters. They used to look after me if my mum and sister were away on football trips, and I used to look after their dogs on the touchline.
“The players in the 1991 team were idols to me as a teenage boy, and I was following the women’s game a lot more than the men’s game. I can probably still list the starting XI from the 1991 team,” says Davidson, who comes from a strong footballing pedigree, with both parents representing New Zealand.
Wendi Henderson, who is seven years older than her brother, played for the Football Ferns across a staggering 20 years, between 1987 and 2007, and was part of the New Zealand team to compete at the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup.
She admits it has been an emotional time witnessing the class of 2023 claim New Zealand’s first victory at a finals tournament and watching the women’s game take the country by storm.
“There have been moments where it all felt a bit surreal. Back in 1991, we could not have imagined that there would be a World Cup in our own country and 42,000 people at Eden Park watching women’s football,” says Henderson, who returned for a third World Cup as an assistant coach in 2019.
The 64-cap international says the growth in the women’s game has been phenomenal.
“The investment that more and more countries are putting into the game is paying off, and it’s fantastic to see.”
Davidson had already worked at the Wellington Regional Stadium as Catering Manager with the Wellington Phoenix club in the A-league, so when Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand earned the hosting rights, it was an easy transition to step into the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“I wanted to be part of history and provide these athletes with the best possible conditions to play football,” says Davidson.
Another element of the tournament that has impressed him has been the volume of fans who attended the matches in Wellington/Te Whanganui-a-Tara.
“I thought we would start strongly, but that things would drop off. However, the crowd numbers — 200,000 so far in the nation’s capital — have held up really well, which is just phenomenal.”
Henderson is equally happy that the tournament has captured a part of the community who would traditionally not have watched women’s football.
“A measure of success for me is the guy who did some work on my house this week. He said he would never have watched women’s sport but had watched a World Cup match the previous night and was blown away by what he had seen.
“He told me had been watching it simply because it has been on TV. It shows you the chicken and egg situation. If you don’t show women’s football, nobody watches it, but if you put it on TV, people will tune in.”
The Football Ferns legend hopes the football community will be able to capitalise on the football wave sweeping the country as thousands more girls and boys will want to play the round-ball game.
“The regular football season is nearly over in this country, and in that context, it will be a slightly bigger challenge to keep the buzz alive for these kids. But this is a huge, unique opportunity for football in Aotearoa New Zealand.”
Acknowledgement: This story has been provided by FIFA.