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Football Fern’s journey from hijab to cricket helmet

After championing female footballers around the world for more than a decade, Michele Cox is turning her attention to encouraging more Kiwi girls to pick up a cricket bat. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

She’s the Kiwi woman who helped win the battle allowing women footballers around the globe to wear headscarves, and took football into one of the world’s largest refugee camps.

Now former Football Fern Michele Cox has been entrusted with the drive to entice more New Zealand girls and women to play cricket.

Cox has returned home to Auckland after a decade overseas, building an illustrious career with sports bodies around the world. She’s worked for international football giants Fifa and UEFA, and for Prince Ali bin El Hussain of Jordan, running his foundation to grow the game in Asia and helping to overturn a ban on Muslim women wearing hijab on the football pitch.

Her latest role, with New Zealand Cricket, is national female participation manager, or, as she explains it, “the champion of women and girls in cricket”.

With her global experience, and a doctorate in physical activity - focusing on getting children physically active - Dr Cox has all the right credentials.  

Cox's career on the pitch spanned 11 years, playing for the Football Ferns in the 1980s and ‘90s, and two title-winning seasons with German club TSV Siegen. Her mother, Barbara, and sister, Tara, also played football for New Zealand.

But Cox also has ties to cricket. Growing up, she played club cricket (often in boy's teams) up until she finished high school. She went on her first tour with the Akarana women's team at the age of 11: "I spent so much time with these women, singing old war songs and eating mince on toast and tomato sandwiches after games. It was a beautiful part of my childhood." 

Her father, Roy Cox, was the promoter of the controversial Kerry Packer World Series cricket tour to New Zealand in 1979. 

Michele Cox's first job was with another sport – working for Hockey New Zealand organising the logistics for the Blacks Sticks men and women in their preparation for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Then, after five years working in banking and sponsorship, Cox became head of the women’s football at NZ Football – where her role was to reinvigorate the women’s game.

“Football was very much a grassroots game [for females], with lots of girls playing, but we were losing them to other sports as they got older,” she says. “We needed to show them why they should stay in the game.”  

That was achieved when Cox led the successful bid for New Zealand to host the inaugural U17 Women’s World Cup in 2008. The tournament attracted 212,000 fans and was a massive success, not only for the international game, but girls’ football at home.

Cox soon joined the women’s committee at Fifa, bringing her marketing expertise to the global table. During her six years, she was also match commissioner at three World Cup tournaments.

She moved to Switzerland in 2009, becoming a consultant providing strategic advice and expertise on women’s and grassroots football to 70 national associations across the world, on behalf of Fifa, UEFA and AFC.

Then, in 2011, Prince Ali bin Al Hussain – brother of King Abdullah of Jordan – was voted in as Fifa’s vice president, and set up a foundation for football across Asia.

Cox was hired to help launch the Asian Football Development Programme (ADFP), moving between Jordan and Switzerland, and working on 40 projects across 25 countries. Some of them were life-changing.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that it’s opened access to the game, not just for all Muslim women, but for all players who wear head coverings."

- Michele Cox

One was the Mighty Girls project, where she worked with the SALT (Sports and Leadership Training) Academy in Cambodia to help take girls at risk of human trafficking off the streets and into football academies – giving them a safety net and better education opportunities.

Another project, held to mark World Refugee Day in Jordan, brought together 500 boys and girls from Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugee communities at a grassroots football festival.

Cox took the ADFP into the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which is today home to almost 80,000 Syrian refugees. Trying to stop boys getting bored and into trouble, they put football pitches in the camp, along with coaches to run training sessions and competitions.

“We wanted training programmes for the young women too, but then we realised a lot of them had never done physical activity before. We had to teach them how to run, kick and throw. But it was so empowering for them,” Cox says.

But the achievement Cox is most proud of in her career was working as the strategic advisor to Prince Ali in a campaign to allow women to wear headscarves on the football pitch.

An Olympic qualifying match in 2011 between Iran and Jordan sparked a major furore when the referee banned Iran’s young Muslim women from taking the field for not removing their hijab.  The players walked off in tears.

When Prince Ali was mandated by Fifa president Sepp Blatter to resolve the “health and safety” issue, Cox became his strategic adviser, devoting much of her time to the campaign.

“When I looked at those girls, I couldn’t bear the thought of them sitting out simply because they wanted to wear something on their heads,” says Cox.

Members of Fifa’s medical committee deemed the headscarf unsafe – if someone pulled on it, a player could suffer injuries to their neck and carotid artery, they suggested. Cox went to a medical specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in the United States who quickly dismissed the argument.

The medical committee revised its opinion and, after a two-year trial, footballers were finally permitted to cover their heads in matches.

“The campaign took a year-and-a-half, but we had some amazing supporters - the Nobel Peace Foundation, Hillary Clinton, and Billie Jean King,” Cox says.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that it’s opened access to the game, not just for all Muslim women, but for all players who wear head coverings. It may have opened the door to 600 million people worldwide.”

Cox returned home this time last year and, with her interest in humanitarian issues piqued, she became CEO of the Asylum Seekers Support Trust in Auckland, providing emergency accommodation, support and advocacy for asylum seekers and convention refugees.

But she was drawn back to sport in April, in a role created as part of NZ Cricket’s recent commitment to growing female involvement in their game.

In the past year, there’s been a 12 percent growth in the number of females playing cricket in New Zealand, and women’s representation on boards around the country is also rising. Part of Cox’s job is to develop a national strategy to continue the healthy growth.

“There are already great things being planned, like the double-header internationals this summer,” she says. The White Ferns and Black Caps will play the Indian men’s and women’s teams in T20s - same park, same day - in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington early next year.

“The critical success factor is that we deliver cricket in a way that’s female-friendly. But that may not be the traditional way,” says Cox, just back from attending the ICC Global Leaders Academy in Dublin.

“Research has found they want to play with other women and girls, but at their level. A social cricketer doesn’t want to be throw in the midst of women playing in the White Ferns. We need to make it flexible so they can turn up when they want to play. And some want to play with softer balls.

“Traditionalists might argue that’s not cricket. But, if it’s not right, the girls won’t show up. We need to listen to this generation.”   

Cox wants to work with other sports in New Zealand, to help females play more than one sport.

“Cricket is a perfect complement sport for athletes who play winter sports and want to do something different in the summer. Plenty of women have had successful careers in more than one sport,” she says.

Women like former Football Ferns goalkeeper and White Fern Rebecca Rolls, and current White Ferns Sophie Devine and Suzie Bates, who have also played hockey and basketball for their country respectively.

Cox has found her own switch of codes has been smooth. “I’ve obviously worked in a lot of sporting organisations, and the professionalism at New Zealand Cricket is outstanding. They’re smart and committed people,” she says.

“I really see the potential in women’s cricket - this game can really grow.”

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