NZ’s first keeper turns football crusader

Answering a newspaper ad for ‘ladies interested in playing football’ led to a lifelong passion for Carol Waller – NZ’s first women’s goalkeeper and then a prominent figure in the game worldwide. Joan Gray writes.

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’ve never 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 molded boots.

The leather football lies in the center 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.

The game 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 the tournament.

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.

NZ keeper Carol Waller makes a save against Australia at the 1975 Asian Cup. Photo: supplied.

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 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,” Waller says.

“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 specialized goalkeeper training for Waller. “I went to training helped 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’re improving because they’re getting top-quality coaching,” Waller says.

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 traveled with just a coach and manager and we were very self-sufficient.”

New Zealand’s first national women’s team fundraised for weeks to obtain gear and cover travel costs.

“It felt rushed,” Waller says. “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.

The first New Zealand women’s football team from 1975. Photo: supplied.

After winning that memorable first match against Hong Kong, 2-0, they defied all expectations and went on to win the entire tournament. They beat Malaysia, 3-0; Australia, 3-2; and Thailand, 3-1, in the final watched by 12,000 spectators.

Their stunning success in 1975 sparked attention for 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.

NZ football’s tireless volunteer

International footballer, chairperson, treasurer, match commissioner, fixtures manager, liaison officer … Carol Waller’s involvement with football has defined boundaries.

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.

Her key achievements include secretary of Eden Football Club from 1975 – devoting 32 years to this role. The club merged into Three Kings United and in 2020 amalgamated with Onehunga Sports to become Auckland United.

Carol Waller receives her Medal of Excellence from Friends of Football president Earle Thomas. Photo: supplied.

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 here.

“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.

A career highlight for Waller was her enormous achievement in introducing rolling substitutes into the New Zealand game to improve player development.

Waller managed the U19 Auckland women’s representative team on a tour to the United States to contest the 1989 Dallas Cup. They stopped in Hawaii for friendly games – which was where Waller and the coach, Barbara Cox, first encountered rolling subs, where substitute players could go back on the pitch.

Waller pushed hard, with the help of the Auckland Football Association, to get the rolling sub rule integrated into New Zealand football. It was first introduced in Auckland in the women’s game and later the junior and senior men’s teams. 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,” Waller says. “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 organization of the Weir Rose Bowl, the premier tournament for U12 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. Now some of them are playing in the All Whites or overseas,” she says.

Waller also managed Auckland’s age-grade teams at the national tournament.

Former Football Ferns Maia Jackman (left) and Carol Waller. Photo: supplied.

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 U17 and U19 Women’s World Cup matches held in Russia in 2007, and Thailand in 2006 respectively.

“That was six weeks away in those countries and it was a real highlight to be there overseeing those matches,” Waller says.

How World Cup will inspire girls

Next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia, will have a positive impact on female football in New Zealand, Waller believes.

“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,” she says.

Even in her seventies, Waller continues to contribute to football in the Auckland area. She crunches the numbers at East City Futsal and 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 with her historic 1975 goalkeeper shirt framed and displayed in the Auckland United clubrooms, along with a cherished photo of her 1975 team.

”It was such an honor,” Waller says. “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.”

* This story also appears on the Friends of Football website.

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