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Travel stories from hell in the rearview mirror

Suzanne McFadden talks to a veteran Football Fern on an historic day for sport in New Zealand about trench warfare and exciting times ahead

If you think a professional athlete flying across the globe in business class is a perk, you need to listen to Sarah Gregorius and her travel stories from hell.

A dynamic Football Fern with 84 internationals to her name, and years of playing soccer for clubs in England, Germany and Japan, Gregorius has suffered the negative effects of travelling in economy class.

“I’ve definitely felt it. Through illness, through injury, through not being able to perform at my best,” she says.

“I’ve had to fly back to New Zealand for really big events – World Cup and Olympic qualifiers, the most important games. It takes you a few days to get the flight out of your legs, and to get your head into the right space. You compromise your body and your performance when you can’t hit the ground running.

“I’ve had to travel long legs to Europe in economy class, and got really sick as a result. You go straight back into your club environment, because that’s where a lot of players get the bulk of their remuneration from, and again, you’re compromising your career by not being able to perform properly. The clubs start to see national team duty as a drain – it’s affecting your welfare as a player.

“As a female athlete I hear a lot about: ‘Oh [women’s football] is an inferior product, it’s not as exciting or as good’. But if you start to lift the rug, you’ll discover we haven’t been able to play at our best because we weren’t afforded the same advantages.”

That’s why yesterday was an unforgettable, historic moment for Gregorius, her Football Ferns team-mates, and all the young women who will represent New Zealand in football after them.

As of now, in a world-first agreement, the Football Ferns have equity and parity with their All White male counterparts. Parity in pay, prizemoney, rights for their image use and most tangibly, Gregorius says, parity in travel.

From now on, our national women’s soccer players will fly business class when they travel six hours or more, just as the All Whites already do.

“Everyone likes travelling business class, because it’s really comfortable. But then you start breaking down the physiological benefits for an athlete,” says Gregorius, who has been working for the New Zealand Professional Footballers’ Association as they negotiated the ground-breaking Collective Bargaining Agreement with New Zealand Football.

“Now we’ve drawn a line in the sand and said we are going to give the Football Ferns every benefit and advantage that an All White has, in terms of being the absolute best they can be for their country. If you frame it like that, there’s no way you can argue with it. It’s what we all want as a sporting community and wider society - equity in the ability to perform.”

Gregorius had never expected to benefit from such an equity agreement; the 30-year-old retired from the professional game in December 2016, after playing at her second Olympics.

But earlier this year, new Football Ferns coach Andreas Heraf lured her out of retirement to play for the Football Ferns again.

“The opportunity to come out of retirement wasn’t one I was expecting. Outside of all the things going on with the NZPFA and the agreement, that was an approach made to me by the coach,” she says. “I was hugely surprised, honoured and flattered.”

But making the Football Ferns team a place where players want to be, and for a long time, was an underlying principle of the collective agreement. Gregorius has seen a number of her former team-mates make early retirements from the international game because they couldn’t continue financially.

“The whole premise of this agreement is that it’s helping to create an environment that players want to be part of, that they’re inspired to belong to, and don’t want to leave,” says Gregorius.

“I believe an environment where everyone feels dignified and respected goes a long way to making sure players will give as much as they can, for as long as they can, in the New Zealand shirt.

“It’s awesome to be part of this team and part of this really positive movement, as well as the positive momentum that’s going to be generated off the back of this.”

Through her work with the NZPFA, Gregorius plans to help bring her team-mates up to speed with what the new agreement will mean for them. “I will also get their input into the things we are fighting for, and ask them if we’re on the right track,” she says.

In the past few years, some common benefits had already been negotiated for both the men’s and women’s national teams, including a daily payment of $115 for players when they are in camp for New Zealand, and 40 percent of any FIFA prizemoney won by each team.

Gregorius was quietly celebrating the latest parity triumphs yesterday: “I’m feeling stoked and relieved; it was such a drawn-out process, it felt more like trench warfare than a battle.”  But she believes there is still room for more evolution in equity negotiations between the players and NZ Football.

“It’s a fantastic step, giving players in New Zealand a united platform. Now we stand alongside the All Whites, and when we go in to fight, we’re doing it together as one collective voice. That’s very powerful and hugely symbolic,” she says.

“But there’s always room for growth. When you’re in sport at the elite level, you’re always looking for that one percent to push yourself and the game further. The mark of a good athlete and organisation is the ability to find spaces to improve where others have overlooked it, or don’t see it as important.”

With this agreement reached, two more international caps under her belt, and a home game announced in her home town next month (against 2011 World Cup champions Japan), Gregorius says it’s been “a pretty damn good start to the year”.

“I’m Wellington born and bred, and I drive past the [Westpac] stadium every day and get goose bumps. It’s so exciting,” she says. The game on June 10 will be the first home international for the Football Ferns since 2015, and 27 years since they last played in the capital.

“What a game, what an opportunity for NZ Football and the NZPFA to start to put the details of the contract into action. It’s turning out to be such a momentous occasion, I keep pinching myself.”

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