To describe the earliest days of women's soccer in New Zealand as a little like a fairy tale would be a bit of an understatement!
The game was played on a purely social basis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the creation of organised competitions in both Wellington and Auckland saw both provinces up and running with their own leagues by the start of the 1973 season.
The obvious next step was to form a national association, but the feeling emanating from the rivalry between the two North Island provinces meant that procrastination prevailed until early 1975, when the Northern (Auckland) Women's Football Association received an airmail letter.
It was an invitation from the Asian Ladies Confederation, offering New Zealand the chance to participate in the Asian Cup. However, to do so, the country had to have its own national body to administer the sport.
The Canterbury association had also set up a women's competition by this time, so with Northern and Wellington still agreeing to disagree on numerous issues, the former, in tandem with Canterbury, formed the New Zealand Women's Football Association, with Wellington given a provisional affiliation to satisfy the requirements of the Asian Confederation's invitation.
A squad was selected following a meeting between the Association's President, Roy Cox, Dave Farrington (coach), Marilyn Marshall and Debbie Leonidas (two Wellington players, by then the dominant province on the field).
Roy's wife, Barbara, was chosen to captain the squad, with other names of note selected including Carol Waller (now New Zealand's Chairman), Kathy Hall (now New Zealand's Under-19 coach) and Nora Watkins (a former coach of the national side).
New Zealand flew to Hong Kong for the tournament, and, against all the odds, won the Asian Cup. En route, they defeated the host nation 2-0, Malaysia 3-0, Australia 3-2, and, in the final, Thailand 3-1. Marshall was the first player to find the net for the newest member of the women's soccer world, and finished the tournament with six goals to her name.
With the silverware the centre of attention at the NZWFA's inaugural Annual General Meeting on October 11, 1975, it was decided that a national tournament be contested annually between affiliated provincial associations, beginning in 1976 with a tournament in Canterbury.
The passing of time saw the NZWFA accepted as a bona fide affiliate of the New Zealand Football Association, and in July 1979, it became an incorporated society. In 1991, the association underwent a name change, becoming the Women's Soccer Association of New Zealand (WSANZ, or SWANZ, for marketing and promotional purposes).
New Zealand's next international involvement came about in 1979, with a three-test series in Australia for the Trans-Tasman Cup. The trophy was shared, but the Australians claimed it outright a year later when they crossed the Tasman Sea for the return series. In 1981, in a one-off test in Auckland, Australia retained the silverware.
Soon after, New Zealand competed in the first World Women's Invitational Tournament in Taiwan, the forerunner to today's FIFA Women's World Championship. Six wins and a draw from their eight matches that October saw the Kiwis finish second in Taiwan, their one loss being to the tournament winners, West Germany.
Following two losses to Taiwan in 1982, a major event took place later in the year, with New Zealand being one of the four founder members of the Oceania Women's Football Association, the other nations involved being Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
At the inaugural meeting, it was decided that the Oceania Nations Cup be contested every three years, with invitations extended to countries in the South Pacific region. The first tournament was held in New Caledonia in 1983, and New Zealand, then the region's leading women's soccer-playing nation, confirmed their top seeding by defeating Australia 3-2 in the final.
The second World Women's Invitational Tournament took place in Taiwan in February 1984, and once again, New Zealand were beaten by the eventual winners, West Germany. It was the only goal they conceded all tournament, yet they ended up in fourth place!!
The first age-grade team to represent New Zealand was also in action in September of that year. A New Zealand Under-21 side played a three test series in New Caledonia, and were convincing winners in each encounter.
This was the last time New Zealand would be represented in women's soccer until Easter, 1986, when the Oceania Nations Cup tournament was held in Christchurch. With only Australia and Taiwan taking up the invitations - Papua New Guinea were a late withdrawal, and FIFA had placed Taiwan in the Oceania region as a result of the political tensions afoot on their doorstep - a New Zealand B side was selected, and was narrowly beaten by all three opponents.
The A side also succumbed to both Australia and the eventual tournament winners, Taiwan, and were almost embarrassed by their junior counterparts in the third place play-off, New Zealand A claiming that spot only after a penalty shoot-out.
Twenty months elapsed before New Zealand's next foray on the international stage, and following three double-figure wins in an unofficial series against Western Samoa, it was to Taiwan they were destined once again, and the last World Women's Invitational Tournament prior to FIFA's long-awaited recognition of women's soccer in the manner we know today.
This time round, the Germans were joined by Taiwan in celebrating victory over New Zealand, who included among their successes a 1-0 triumph over a team which was soon to take the women's soccer world by force, the USA.
Once again, New Zealand's lot was fourth place, but this time on goal difference - the USA and West Germany also had three wins to show for their efforts, while Taiwan, with five wins, succeeded the Germans as women's soccer's unofficial world champions.
The white shirts were put in mothballs for over a year until Easter 1989, when the third Oceania Nations Cup tournament was held, this time in Australia. New Zealand powered through the round-robin phase, but when it came to the final, against Taiwan, a combination of ill luck and some of mother nature's less welcome elements saw the Asians retain the trophy on the back of a 1-0 win.
The Under-19s were next to represent New Zealand, winning a two-test series against Australia here in 1989, then crossing the Tasman to better our long-standing rivals over three matches two years later.
In between times, the SWANZ, as they were by now known, had taken part in the inaugural Oceania Women's World Cup qualifying series in Australia in May, 1991. After amassing a 16-0 win over Papua New Guinea in their first game of the tournament - to this day New Zealand's record victory - Australia were always going to be hard-pressed to match or better such a winning margin, and so it was that New Zealand qualified for the inaugural FIFA Women's World Championship in November that year.
Preparations for the World Cup Finals were based around a three-test series against Australia, and two wins and a draw - New Zealand's first series win on home turf - sent the Dave Boardman - coached squad off to China in good heart, this despite being drawn in the hardest group.
As results were to prove. After a 3-0 reversal at the hands of Denmark, Norway went one better two days later, while the host nation condemned New Zealand to a final ranking of eleventh in the twelve nation tournament by handing out a 4-1 hiding. Kim Nye scored our only goal in China.
Being as isolated as New Zealand is on a global scale, attracting quality teams of either gender outside of Oceania to our shores to play our national sides in the current economic climes is an exercise which rarely results in the game benefitting financially. Hence there is more chance of you sighting the SWANZ in your part of the world than we have of seeing them in action here in our own backyard!
That has certainly been the case this decade. In August 1993, the USA invited New Zealand to participate in their CONCACAF tournament, and second place was duly earned. A year later in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, the SWANZ were edged out by Australia on goal difference in the Oceania Women's World Cup qualifying series.
After finishing bottom of their group at India's Gold Cup tournament prior to the World Cup qualifiers, the SWANZ were twice well beaten in Australia in the revived Trans-Tasman Cup series early in 1995. But hopes were revived when two goalless draws in South Korea marked the start of Maurice Tillotson's era as coach of the national side.
New Zealand's most recent international series on home soil took place in Auckland in March, 1996. South Korea and Australia partook in a tri-series, and while the Matildas again held the upper hand in the two clashes with their Oceania neighbours, another goalless draw against South Korea was followed by a 1-0 win over our Asian guests.
Later in the year, a one-off match against a Papua New Guinea side who were en route to a tournament among the smaller Pacific Island nations underlined the need nowadays to take all opposition seriously, no matter how well you may have performed against them in the past.
Five previous internationals against PNG had seen New Zealand amass forty goals against Oceania's third ranked women's soccer-playing nation, without conceding one. So it's fair to say that the 1-1 draw recorded on home turf tops the rankings in a very brief list of shock results in the history of New Zealand women's soccer!!
While the SWANZ have been on the road throughout the 1990s, but with greater infrequency in the latter part of the decade, it must be said, our age-grade teams have also been active, mostly against Australian opposition. The Under-20s won a three-test series on home turf against their Australian counterparts in 1994, but the tables were turned at an International Youth Challenge tournament in Australia a year later, which South Korea and the Australian Secondary Schoolgirls squad also contested.
South Korea proved too strong for New Zealand's Under-20s in 1996, clean-sweeping a three-test series, a similar fate to that which befell our Under-17 side when Australia came visiting in 1995. The current crop of Under-17s enjoyed better fate against the Australian Secondary Schoolgirls late last year, however, winning both matches.
But it's the SWANZ who are recognised as the 'shop window' side of the code in this country, and their displays against Australia and China, in a tri-series across the Tasman in November 1997, while resulting in defeats, offered much hope and encouragement for the months ahead.
Following the 'Champions Tour', in which the SWANZ won two matches against Dutch club sides before taking on the European Champions, Germany, and the Olympic Champions, the USA, both twice, the national side took part in the country's National Tournament, the annual battle to determine New Zealand's champion province. Next on the agenda was the Oceania Women's World Cup qualifying series, which took place in Auckland between October 9-17, 1998.
Needless to say, hopes were high that the SWANZ would be making another trip to the USA at the end of this tournament, especially after amassing a world record-equalling 21-0 thrashing of Samoa in the first match of the qualifying series.
But defeat in the qualifying series final against Australia put paid to those dreams, as well as any chance of qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Games tournament in Sydney.
After a hiatus of almost twenty months on the international front - a period of time in which the USA’s Kristine Lilly became the first footballer of either gender to smash through the two hundred barrier, in terms of appearances for her country - the SWANZ were back in action, as the invited nation at the inaugural Pacific Alliance Cup in Australia.
There, they were narrowly beaten by both Canada and Japan, before copping the expected trouncings from the USA and China, sandwiched in between which was an unwelcome hiding from our trans-tasman rivals.
In 2002, another development took place in the women's game, this time at domestic level. The National Women's Soccer Tournament was consigned to the history books, and was replaced by the National Women's Soccer League, an eight-team round-robin affair, with games being played on a weekly basis, as opposed to the week-long war of attrition which, it's fair to say, the National Tournament was, to some extent.the week-long war of attrition which, it's fair to say, the National Tournament was, to some extent.
The league idea was a big hit with the people who matter most - the players, who greatly welcomed the week-long recovery time, amongst other things! The more things change, the more things stay the same, however - another piece of silverware headed to women's soccer's northern stronghold at the conclusion of the inaugural season!!
It was followed by the appointment, in March 2003, of Michelle Anderson, to the full-time role of Women's Soccer Development Officer, a newly-created position in New Zealand Soccer. Her tenure was short-lived, but not that of the position.
The 1975 Asian Cup champions
The founding father of NZ women's football, Roy Cox
The 1987 World Women's Invitational Tournament squad
The 1991 Oceania Women's World Cup qualifying squad
The 1997 Tri-Series squad
The SWANZ line up before their 2000 Pacific Alliance Cup clash with China.
The SWANZ line up before their 2003 Oceania Women's World Cup clash with Australia.
2005 Sport Auckland Sportswoman of the Year
Oceania's champions who qualified for the 2006
FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Finals
The 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup Finals squad
Maia Jackman gets the better of the world's best player, Marta, during the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup Finals
Amber Hearn celebrates scoring the winner against Argentina at the 2008 Peace Queen Cup
Kirsty Yallop leads the celebrations after scoring against Japan at the 2008 Olympic Women's Football Tournament
Rebecca Tegg, Rebecca Smith and Marlies Oostdam,
the Kiwi trio who played in the 2008 Australian W-League
Host nation New Zealand and Canada prior to the opening match of the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Finals
Rosie White leads the celebrations after scoring a hat-trick against Chile at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Finals
Michele Cox with her boss, FIFA President Sepp Blatter
The celebratory haka after earning a dramatic 2-2 draw with Mexico in our final game at Germany 2011
The squad acknowledges the crowd after playing the host nation in the opening game of the 2012 London Olympics
The National League, a number of training camps and a five-match tour of Texas, where American university teams of various ranks were engaged, served as the SWANZ preparations for the 2003 Oceania Women's World Cup qualifying tournament, held in Canberra.
Once again, our trans-tasman neighbours provided the obstacle between New Zealand and progress to the Women's World Cup Finals, but the Australians were surprised by the sheer tenacity and never-say-die approach of the SWANZ, who gave more than a good account of themselves, particularly given the Matildas had taken part in twenty-four internationals since the SWANZ last kicked a ball in anger at the Pacific Cup tournament in June 2000.
Women's soccer has come a long way in New Zealand in the last quarter-century or so. After a fairytale beginning, the 1980s saw us glimpse the summit, without ever quite reaching it, at all three World Women's Invitational Tournaments. The 1991 World Cup Finals indicated that our descent was under way. A 1-1 home draw with Papua New Guinea in November 1996 was our nadir.
Our most recent international performances have indicated that there is potential aplenty to rise again, although our ascent will never be of phoenix-like proportions while we compete with such irregularity on the international stage.
The Pacific Alliance Cup, the Oceania Women’s World Cup qualifying series and the Oceania Olympic Games qualifying series should each be regarded as important stepping stones in this context, but far more regular international match-play is imperative if the SWANZ are to once again soar towards the summit of the women’s soccer world.
However, things are on the improve in that regard. The New Zealand national women's squad, as NZ Soccer wishes the team to be known - not exactly media-friendly, but ... - is set to be granted their long-held wish for a regular diet of internationals, with the national body having made a firm commitment to target qualifying for the 2007 Women's World Cup Finals, and the 2008 Olympic Games.
The road to China started in Brisbane in February 2004, when a late invitiation was extended to New Zealand to take part in the Australia Cup competition. Their final match at that tournament marked this country's one hundredth international - sadly, it was marked by our heaviest defeat, as North Korea, with a squad boasting over 1000 appearances collectively, humbled our young side - just 62 caps between them - 11-0 at QE2 Stadium.
A young squad, with ten new caps, was named for that tournament, the idea being to build up their experience over time so that, come 2007, they would be a competitive combination on the world stage.
Given their inexperience, it was controversially decided by NZ Soccer not to enter our women into the 2004 Olympic Games qualifiers, which, given New Zealand's Olympic traditions, understandably drew much hue and cry from many groups and individuals, who couldn't see the logic behind not even competing.
That North Korea result, in hindsight, is reason enough - had New Zealand qualified for Athens, they would have been facing the likes of North Korea, and a scoreline of that magnitude, on such a stage as the Olympic Games ... you don't need to be Einstein to appreciate the damage that would have done on a number of fronts!
Later in the year, New Zealand were invited to play two matches against the Olympic champions, the USA, as part of that country's ten-match nationwide farewell tour - so tagged as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett were hanging up their boots at the end of the year.
5-0 and 6-0 reversals were the outcome, but as US Soccer media officer Aaron Heifetz said, "Two games at that level can do nothing but help New Zealand. If only they could get more games!!" Now where have I heard that before?!
Throughout 2005, New Zealand Soccer's Senior Elite Women's International Development Squad trained thrice-weekly, with groups of players gathering in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch for training sessions of a far greater intensity than would be received by the players at club-based training sessions.
The one major drawback, however, was the lack of games for the Elite Squad members, because their involvement in the Elite Squad concept saw them being denied the opportunity to play for their clubs in league action - only in Uncle Toby's Women's Knockout Cup action were the Elite Squad players able to don their club colours.
As at the end of July, the Elite Squad had played just nine friendly fixtures as a group - this figure doesn't include the two-match trip to Japan, where defeats were experienced at the hands of the host nation (a disappointing 6-0 scoreline) and Japan Universities (1-0 - although the situation would doubtless have been somewhat different had the officials appointed to the match been of international standard; this trio ... some things are better left unsaid! (But you can guess what I'm thinking!!))
Throw in up to three Uncle Toby's Cup games for some players, and it's little wonder the girls were frustrated at their lack of game-time! But while they were suffering in this regard, things were changing both behind the scenes and on the international front, changes which are very much for the better where NZ women's soccer is concerned.
Domestically, a change of personnel saw the departure of Director of Football, Paul Smalley, and National Women's Coach, Mick Leonard, and the introduction of a new Chief Executive Officer, Graham Seatter, and a new role, the Head of Women's Football, with Michele Cox appointed to the post.
As she did in her playing days, it didn't take long for "Coxy" to make an impact on proceedings, and she swiftly introduced changes which quickly bore fruit for the New Zealand women's game.
So impressed were FIFA by her foresight, endeavour and ability to make a difference that she didn't stay in NZ Football's employ for long. Instead, she is now gainfully employed by the world's governing body in the task of spreading the gospel of women's football - in 2009 alone, she visited thirty-two countries with this express purpose in mind!
Across the Tasman, Australia's involvement with Oceania came to an end at the end of 2005, their switch to the Asian Confederation paving the way for New Zealand to take over as the queens of Oceania women's soccer, an opportunity they swiftly took by qualifying in style for the 2006 Under-20 Women's World Cup Finals in Russia, just the fourth occasion in history a New Zealand team has progressed to the ultimate stage of a FIFA Finals tournament, gender regardless.
That team drew with eventual third place-getters Brazil, after going down to a last-minute defeat at the hands of the host nation.
Qualification for the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup Finals in China was the next milestone realised, while the absence of any other entries in Oceania meant New Zealand qualified automatically for the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Finals in Chile in 2008.
That year also saw the Football Ferns beat Papua New Guinea in a one-off match to clinch Oceania's spot at the 2008 Olympic Women's Football Tournament, where the Kiwi team led Japan 2-0 with twelve minutes to go before being held to a 2-2 draw by the time which eventually finished fourth.
In October that year, New Zealand hosted the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Finals, and did so impressively on and off the park. Narrow defeats at the hands of Canada and Denmark didn't deny the Young Ferns their moment of glory, however, Rosie White's hat-trick earning victory over Columbia - New Zealand's first win in a FIFA Women's Finals event.
The second wasn't long in coming - another Rosie White hat-trick sparked a 4-3 win over Chile at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Finals, while only a last-gasp equaliser by England prevented the Junior Ferns from becoming the first-ever New Zealand team to advance beyond the first round of a FIFA Finals - they were literally thirty seconds away from history!
New Zealand's progress on the world stage hasn't gone unnoticed, and invitations to contest the Peace Queen Cup and the Cyprus Women's Cup during this halcyon period have seen the Football Ferns perform highly creditably, with wins over top-twenty-ranked Argentina and Holland and draws against top-ten-ranked Canada and France significant milestones in the development of this young team.
A measure of that progress comes in two forms, the first being the number of opportunities individuals have enjoyed in recent times.
In days gone by, Maureen Jacobson and Michele Cox played professionally in Europe, a feat now being matched by Rebecca Smith, who has played in Sweden and Germany in recent times, as well as in Australia, where she was joined by Marlies Oostdam and Rebecca Tegg.
Meanwhile, Maia Jackman and Simone Ferrara took part in the 2002 Chinese Women's Super League, with Jackman becoming New Zealand's first-ever FIFA Women's World All-Star team member five years later.
And in 2009, Kirsty Yallop and Ali Riley were members of the United Soccer League Women's championship-winning Pali Blues team in a competition which saw Football Ferns team-mates Amber Hearn and Ria Percival perform exceptionally for Ottawa Fury, their efforts seeing them named among the final nominees for the end-of-season MVP and Defender awards respectively.
New Zealand captain, Hayley Moorwood, played alongside them at Ottawa, and achieved two significant milestones for the code during the decade, being named Sport Auckland's Sportswoman of the Year in 2005, and earning the first women's football nomination for the prestigious Halberg Awards four years later.
The other measure is the number of full internationals the national team has played in recent times. From their first fixture, in August 1975, until the end of October 2006, New Zealand made 102 appearances on the world stage.
Over the course of the next four years, i.e. come the end of October 2010, the Football Ferns played half as many matches again - something which it's highly unlikely those involved at the very onset of women's football in New Zealand less than forty years ago could ever have envisaged happening in such a timeframe.
As well that year, the Junior Ferns earned competitive scorelines at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Finals (although their performances weren't exactly memorable), while the Young Ferns impressed at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Finals before their limited preparations were exposed by eventual runners-up Japan.
By the end of 2011, it was possible to name an entirely overseas-based Football Ferns starting eleven - a sure sign of the progress both players and team are making in the world game.
The key to this was their performances at the FIFA Women's World Cup Finals in Germany, where they drew level with eventual winners Japan before being beaten by the odd goal in three, a scoreline which also befell them against England, a match which New Zealand led 1-0 beyond the hour mark.
And then there was Mexico. 2-0 down after half-an-hour, and still the case in the 89th minute. Final score, 2-2 - a first-ever point at women's football's ultimate showcase, and achieved in such dramatic fashion that it felt like a win.
It was a heck of a note on which coach John Herdman chose to bow out. Having been the driving force behind NZ's women's footballing renaissance since taking on the U-20s role in 2006, the ensuing five years were ones of highs far outweighing lows, and progress to such an extent that it's only a matter of time before the Football Ferns advance to the next level - the knockout stages of a Finals, something which Tony Readings hoped to achieve with the team in 2012 and beyond.
The benefits of this progress are already filtering down through the age grades - witness the NZ Secondary Schoolgirls' series win over their Australian counterparts in 2010, and the Young Ferns' comprehensive series win over Australia in a friendly series in late 2011 - good signs for the next generation, and for New Zealand women's football generally.
Tony's hopes bore fruit at the London 2012 Olympic Women's Football Tournament, where the Football Ferns created New Zealand footballing history as the first national representative team to reach the last eight of a world-renowned international tournament.
2013 began with both a high - Maia Jackman was recognised in the New Zealand Honours List as an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit (ONZM) - and a low, the passing of the founding father of NZ women's football, Roy Cox (refer obituary link at the top of the page).
He's left one heck of a legacy for us all to carry on in his memory, part of which is the challenge of building on those 2012 successes.
And with a further welcome seven-figure boost from the coffers of Sport New Zealand to help them along, it's to be hoped that, at Canada 2015 or Brazil 2016, the Football Ferns can realise a top-four finish, nigh on thirty years since New Zealand women's football last graced such heights on the world stage.