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Football Ferns captain out to ease tensions

The Football Ferns are beginning a new era under a new coach. So far it hasn't gone smoothly, Suzanne McFadden reports.

Football Ferns captain Ali Riley will make herself the go-between in smoothing the relationship between her team and their new coach.

Speaking from Sweden, where she lives and plays soccer, the highly-experienced Riley admits there was “tension” on the Football Ferns’ last tour, to Spain in March, under Andreas Heraf’s new leadership.

Since that tour, the team’s manager has resigned and the most capped women’s footballer in the country, Abby Erceg, retired. Neither has told the media why.

Heraf is a former Austrian international who’d been NZ Football’s technical director until he became the Ferns’ coach late last year. Riley says he has exacting standards and “a very European style – very honest”.

Under their former coach of six seasons, Tony Readings, the Football Ferns had developed a close-knit, family culture. “That's something you develop when you’re not a super successful team – you really come together and you have to push each other after losses. So removing the leader of that [culture] was obviously a bit of a shock,” Riley says.

The 30-year-old captain sees it as her responsibility now to bring the two diverse styles together, and have her team-mates accept Heraf’s “new performance-driven environment”, as the team endeavours to qualify for next year’s World Cup in France.

“I think the challenge is balancing the on-field expectations – [Heraf’s] high standards and the level of professionalism he expects - with the family and fun Ferns culture we’ve developed over the years,” says Riley, who’s earned 115 caps with the Ferns over a decade.

“That’s where I think there was some tension in Spain, but it was mostly because it was the beginning of something. And it’s now finding a way to meld and bond those two things together.”

It’s Riley’s hope that the Football Ferns playing at home in a friendly match against Japan next month could be a first step in achieving that.

When the Ferns team to meet world No. 11 Japan in Wellington was named last week, former captain Erceg was surprisingly missing from the line-up. Erceg had suddenly retired - for a second time in 15 months - but would not reveal why.

This came after a story on Stuff claimed a number of Ferns players had voiced their concerns that there was an “unprofessional culture” developing in the team under Heraf, but no one was prepared to go on the record.

The team is also looking for a new manager, after the resignation of Claire Hamilton, who’d been with them for five years.

“I think there are definitely teething and growing pains,” Riley says. “I saw Spain as being a bit of an initiation, a meeting of the two sides. And now we’ve done it, we’ve got through it.

“There have been more changes since then, so it won’t be easy. But this is really where we’re going to create something very special.”

Riley sees the first step as accepting the new performance-driven environment under Heraf’s command.

“That is why we play - to win games. That’s why I think it’s important to accept his way of getting us there. We need to get know him, and let him get to know us, and find a new identity with both parties,” she says.

“Andreas has such big visions and ambitions for us. And I think he has a really good plan in place to help achieve something that no [senior] New Zealand female football team has achieved yet - getting out of the group stage at a World Cup. That’s the first stage obviously. He’s realistic in the way that he sees we can achieve that.”

Riley has captained the Football Ferns since last year’s Cyprus Cup, and although she’s never lived in New Zealand (she grew up in the United States, but has a Kiwi dad), she says being part of this team means the world to her.

“I feel a huge responsibility to make sure that we not only perform to the best of our ability, and make everyone proud back home, but to also be role models and really good people,” she says.

“That’s why I think it’s so important to find this new identity. To be these fun-loving, warm players, who make fun videos and really open ourselves up on social media. But also to show that we can get shit done on the field. And that’s where Andreas is going to be key for us.”

Playing for top Swedish club FC Rosengard for the last seven years has developed Riley's game as an attacking fullback, a style she says is similar to the way Heraf wants the Football Ferns to play.

For the past two seasons, Riley has made the shortlist for the FIFPRO Women’s World XI. She and her Rosengard team-mates have just won the Swedish Cup for the third season running. She speaks fluent Swedish, and now has a Swedish partner, who plays in the men’s fourth division competition.

But she admits: “I’m definitely getting the seven-year itch to look at playing somewhere else”.

“It’s obviously still a challenge being so far away from New Zealand, but if you want to be the best player and represent your country to the best of your ability, and play in a league like this, then you have to make sacrifices," she says.

Last year she encouraged Football Ferns team-mate Hannah Wilkinson to join her in Sweden; she plays for the rival Vittsjo GIK club.

Next weekend, they’ll make the 38-hour journey from Malmo to Wellington together. Both are afraid of flying. But under the historic Collective Bargaining Agreement with NZ Football reached earlier this month, Wilkinson and Riley will be travelling in business class for the first time.

“I usually have this feeling of dread. But knowing that I will be flying there in more comfort, we will arrive in much better condition and in better spirits,” Riley says. 

“It’s going to be a really tough challenge playing one of the best teams in the world, but I think we'll have the country rallying behind us."

A chance to validate the historic battle for gender parity in pay and conditions - New Zealand is the first federation in the world to commit to that level of equality - should inspire the team, says Riley, who has been a media star in Sweden over the issue. “The Swedish team were in their own battle [for parity] earlier this year. They didn’t have the same support from the men’s team, who were in the midst of their qualifiers. Compare that with our men’s team, responding to all emails with ‘Congrats, this is amazing’, while they were also trying to qualify for the World Cup. That made me really proud,” she says.

“I have a team-mate [Iva Landeka] who’s the captain of the Croatian national team, who’s now hoping she can do the same thing one day for Croatia, where women’s football is basically ignored. It’s so cool to be part of this, and hopefully we’ll create a domino effect.”

While the Football Ferns enter a new era of professionalism, Riley wants to protect the team's "fun side" off the field.

The Ferns are famous for making their own music videos, pot-luck dinners and “Jeopardy” quiz nights on tour. “It brings the team together and makes it more light-hearted. There’s so many meetings and so much analysis, you need a break from that. Maybe that’s more important for us than other teams. But that’s who we are, and I think it contributes to a better performance off the field,” she says.

With her partner in entertainment, Sarah Gregorius, Riley wants to organise a talent quest on the next Ferns tour: “Have you heard Hannah Wilkinson play guitar and sing? We need to give her a run for her money”.   

Riley also plays a minor role as a chef and food consultant to the team when they’re on tour. She has a passion for food, and has created her own food blog, love2eat2love.com, focusing on healthy nutrition. “You love to eat, and then you feel good, so you are more loving, and you put good energy back into the world - and that’s my philosophy,” she says.

She makes protein shakes for her team-mates, and shares her nutritional knowledge. “We just talk a LOT about food,” she says.

On her website, she tweaks recipes to suit team-mates who are gluten-free or vegan. “They appreciate it when I put up a vegan carrot cake or milkshake,” she says. “I get a lot of followers who are athletes, who are in the same position as me, who want to eat well.”

Her next goal, when her full football career allows, is to publish a cook book.

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