Football

Football Fern finds her voice in Trump’s America

“I’m openly gay, I’m a woman – and, at the time, I was a foreigner. I was all the things he wasn’t advocating for. It was terrifying to see it unfold.”

Before Donald Trump became the new President of the United States, Hannah Wilkinson had never been involved in a large-scale protest.

But on January 21, the day after the controversial New York property mogul and former reality TV star was inaugurated, the Whangarei-born Football Ferns striker was marching on the streets in small-city Tennessee, protesting against injustice.

For Wilkinson, an openly gay woman living in America’s conservative heartland, Trump’s long record of misogyny was difficult to take.

But being involved in the Knoxville chapter of the Women’s Marches – staged to protest Trump’s election and thought to have included more than 4.5 million people worldwide –renewed her belief in civil rights.

“To be in amongst the crowd in Knoxville, which is such a Republican area, was so powerful,” Wilkinson told Newsroom via phone from the Football Ferns’ recent camp in Cyprus.

“I was with my liberal, Democratic friends, but to be part of a movement like that, it was powerful. You can sort of feel what it was like in the sixties.”

Wilkinson has spent the past five years in Knoxville, where she has played out a college women’s football scholarship at the University of Tennessee.

Trump won Knox County - where Knoxville sits - with 59 per cent of the overall vote. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gained only 35.5 per cent.

“The only person who could beat Trump [in Knox County] is Peyton Manning,” Dennis Francis, a Tennessee political commentator, told a local news channel after the election.

Wilkinson has been an active critic of Trump on social media, even having one of her Woman’s March tweets used by a Tennessee television network.

“It’s been really hard to watch,” Wilkinson, who was playing in her final year at Tennessee, says of Trump’s unlikely rise to the White House.

“During his inauguration, or when the voting was happening, you kind of feel helpless. It was unbelievable. I always like to remind my American friends that the U.S. is so influential, in terms of the rest of the world.

“You learn all about America when you are 12 watching TV in New Zealand. You know all about it before you go there. And then to see someone like [Trump] take a leadership position is just scary - especially for someone like me.

“I’m openly gay, I’m a woman – and, at the time, I was a foreigner. I was all the things he wasn’t advocating for. It was terrifying to see it unfold.”

Since making her debut for the Football Ferns against Australia as a 19-year-old in February 2010, Wilkinson has emerged as a key member of coach Tony Readings’ side.

A striker, she has tallied up 78 international caps, scoring 24 goals. In arguably the most successful period for New Zealand women’s football, Wilkinson played in both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, and at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Things weren’t so pleasant for the world no. 19 ranked Football Ferns in Cyprus, with the Kiwis losing their three pool games to Scotland, Austria and South Korea. Only South Korea was ranked higher than them.

The poor results seem to back up former captain Abby Erceg’s bitter decision to retire from international football last month.

Erceg, who plays professionally in the U.S., bemoaned the lack of support from New Zealand Football for the women’s international set-up.

Wilkinson was one of the first of the outgoing skipper’s teammates to publically support her. High-profile American goalkeeper Hope Solo also endorsed Erceg’s decision.

While Wilkinson remains dedicated to the Football Ferns, she says the situation has to improve. The lack of time the team spent together before the Cyprus Cup proves both her and Erceg’s points.

Only one full squad training session was held before the tournament, with some players arriving the day before their first game against Scotland.

“It’s a difficult situation,” Wilkinson says. “I obviously supported [Erceg] 100 per cent and we’re all experiencing the same sort of things she’s talking about.

“It is hard and gets really tough, but I guess we have to remember that New Zealand is a country where women’s soccer is not like it is in France or the U.S..

“It’s the way it is, and, at the same time, it’s just frustrating. I don’t want to get too much into it, but it is a difficult balance.

“Right now, our job is to go out there and perform no matter what, and represent our country. Every time you put on that shirt, it’s game time. I’m proud to do that.”

FIFA’s international windows make things difficult, but the need for more time together in camp is evident.

Despite Erceg only being three years older, Wilkinson described her as a role model whose calm leadership style has made a massive impact on the Football Ferns’ recent golden years.

“She’s been a huge role model,” she says. “It’s always good to have a player with that kind of steadiness – it holds the team together.

“When things do get tough on the field, she is the voice and calm person you want out there. The way she handles adversity and the way she articulates her thoughts and leads the team – she’s so clear with what she wants to say.”

Wilkinson has just signed her first professional contract with a Swedish club.

While praising the pathway the US college system offers young Kiwi footballers – fellow Football Ferns Daisy Cleverly (Berkeley University) and Maritine Puketapu (Colorado) currently play at American universities – she says she is looking forward to testing herself at the pro level.

“I definitely feel ready,” the 24-year-old says.

“I was ready before I tore my ACL in 2015. I’m really ready to move on and see what it’s like to play at a professional, higher level for a job.

“It’s going to be incredible for my development – it’s really exciting.”

As for her opposition to Trump’s America, expect more of the same activism from the Sweden-bound Northlander.

A post shared by Hannah Wilkinson (@hwilkin17) on

“The more people who speak out, the better – especially ones who do have a platform,” Wilkinson says.

“That’s the good thing with my Twitter and other social media. I do have a good following because of football.

“You see other people do it too, on the same journey I’m on, wondering ‘how did this happen? We’re really starting to see what a democracy looks like now with the marches. It’s been scary, but it’s cool to see people coming together.”

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