Ali Riley forced to be her ‘absolute best’ at Bayern
Football Ferns captain Ali Riley is making the most of her opportunity to play for German giants Bayern Munich, harbouring a dream of representing New Zealand at her fifth World Cup
It would take a lot to wipe the smile off Ali Riley’s face. On a warmer-than-usual autumn day in Munich, the Football Ferns captain is fondly recalling her first experience at OktoberFest.
“Mindblowing,” she says of the world-renowned German beer festival. “I did go three times ... but I didn’t drink much.”
Even if her stein’s not full, Riley is a glass-half-full kind of person. And sitting at Bayern Munich’s sprawling football campus in the north of Munich, you can tell life is pretty good for the 32-year-old.
She’s playing in the Champions League for Bayern Munich, one of the world’s biggest football clubs, and is feeling refreshed for what she hopes will be another few years with the Football Ferns.
The 132-cap international says she still has more to give to New Zealand football, and she wants to finally win a World Cup game – something she’s been denied in four World Cup campaigns.
“Life is short and we have to live in the present, but I would love to have the honour of representing New Zealand at another World Cup,” she says.
“These are amazing experiences that I feel very fortunate to be able to continue to have at this stage of my career.
“I want to play and represent my country for many more years, and I think it only makes sense to also be playing in the most professional environment that I can.”
Riley signed for Bayern in July, just weeks after fellow Kiwi Sarpreet Singh also signed for the German giants, straight from the Wellington Phoenix.
“When I signed here, there were a lot of people sending me messages saying that it was so cool that there were two Kiwis here, and that I would have to get to know him,” Riley says of Singh.
“[He’s] a cool guy, so down-to-earth. I don’t even know if he realises that he’s here [at a club as big as Bayern] and having this opportunity, because he’s just so sweet and so humble.”
The pair caught up to welcome the All Blacks Sevens team to Bayern Munich, where they trained before playing in the Oktoberfest 7s tournament. Bayern’s deadly striker Robert Lewandowski - who's leading the race for the European Golden Shoe this season - got an All Blacks jersey too.
“Because I live here at the campus, and this is where the women’s team trains, I see [Riley] round a bit,” the 20-year-old Singh says. “I’ve seen a couple of their games as well, and it’s been good.”
But for the most part, the high-flying Kiwi footballers are busy on their own paths - the youngster Singh trying to establish himself, and the veteran defender Riley trying to help Bayern achieve their lofty ambitions for the season.
“Being on the inside offers more opportunity to push, to keep improving standards, to keep asking for more and to be treated fairly” – Ali Riley
They’re currently third in the German Frauen-Bundesliga, six points adrift of runaway leaders Wolfsburg. But with coach Jens Scheuer in his first season and a number of new players in the side, Riley remains positive that Bayern’s best is still ahead of them.
“There can be a little bit of teething, maybe at the start, but I think when we play at our best, it’s some of the best football I’ve ever seen and been part of,” the US-born Riley says.
“That’s one of the beauties of being at a club like this. There’s a lot of pressure and you’ve got that target on your back. But I think we’ve got the right team to take it in our stride and hopefully we’ll finish at the top of the table at the end of the season.”
Bayern also have big expectations in the Champions League, where they made the semifinals last season.
“It’s expected that we are at least in the quarterfinals of the Champions League every year, if not the semifinal,” Riley says.
With huge expectations come huge resources, too.
As well as dedicated in-house chefs and state-of-the-art training facilities, Riley and her Bayern team-mates have travelled on charter flights to matches around Europe - most recently to Kazakhstan where they came away with a 5-0 round of 16 win over BIIK-Kazygurt.
“Testament to the club - we had a chartered flight, stayed at the most amazing hotel, with amazing food,” Riley says. "The field, everything, was setup for us to do well."
Bayern wrapped up that two-legged tie with a 2-0 win at home a few weeks later and can now look ahead to a quarterfinal encounter with French powerhouse Lyon - winners of the past four Champions League titles - in March next year.
Competition for starting spots is high at Bayern, and Riley is often coming off the bench in matches. But she’s positive about that too.
“On the field, in training, we’re all competing for these spots,” she says. “We all want to be playing in these Champions League games, but then also, you want the team to be successful.”
(Last season Riley struggled at English Women's Super League side Chelsea, where her game time was restricted by a niggling foot injury.)
“I definitely think this is an environment where I’m going to be pushed to the limits and forced to be my absolute best every single day. And I think that’s really good as a footballer,” she says.
“To be able to still be doing that and still pushing myself is really cool, and hopefully I can contribute to the national team’s success as well.”
The Football Ferns are never far from Riley’s focus, and despite coming away win-less from their two-match tour in China this month, she’s excited - and committed - to another World Cup cycle with the Football Ferns.
“I really want to win a game at a World Cup,” she admits.
Already recognised as a strong role model for women’s football, Riley also wants to contribute more to promoting the game around the globe.
“I think there’s still so much we can do in terms of pushing the women’s game forward in New Zealand and around the world,” she says.
“Being on the inside offers more opportunity to push, to keep improving standards, to keep asking for more and to be treated fairly. I think I’ll be able to do that more effectively from the inside.
“I’m not looking to go anywhere soon, but I think I’ll need to see how the Olympics go [in 2020] and how I feel after that. So much can change in a year.”