Best of the Week
The crazy year of a teen Football Fern
Your last year at high school is typically a hectic one. But Anna Leat takes it to a whole ‘nother level.
In her final year at Rangitoto College, life for the multi-talented 17-year-old has been exceptionally full-on, balancing her studies with international football – and playing for three different national sides.
After making her debut at goalkeeper for the Football Ferns at the age of 15, Leat has continued on in the women’s national team this season. She will also have played at two World Cups in this year alone.
After starring in goal for the New Zealand side at the U20 World Cup in France in July, Leat will next week be minding the net for New Zealand in the U17 World Cup in Uruguay.
As incredible and demanding as her football career has been so far, and with all the prospects that lie ahead of her, the level-headed Leat isn’t one to shirk away from her schoolwork.
She plans to study environmental science at an American college next year, and puts her desire to make social change in New Zealand ahead of her footballing aspirations.
When she’s not playing, training or in school, Leat also busks on streets around Auckland – playing her guitar or ukulele – to raise money for her sporting trips.
She’s been doing it since she was at primary school, when she first represented New Zealand, in karate, at the age of seven.
Leat’s football career began in Arrowtown as a four-year-old, tagging along with her older brother Michael to his team practices.
“I’ve just grown up around in and around football and I just love it,” she says. “Dad was the coach of my brother’s team and so I just joined in their training.”
When she began playing in the junior grades, she rotated positions around the field, until one day finding herself in goal for a penalty shoot-out. She saved a goal to win the game and the whole experience made her hungry for more time in front of the net.
“I guess I’ve been hooked on it ever since. I was also a bit better than the rest of my team-mates and kept getting put in goal. I just seemed to have a knack for it.”
At 10, when Leat’s family moved to Auckland, she found herself being coached by her goalkeeping idol, Jenny Bindon. With 77 appearances in the Football Ferns goal, Bindon is now the goalkeeping coach and assistant coach for the University of California Los Angeles.
“It was crazy for me to be straight into training with someone in the national team. I’ve always looked up to her as a player and now as a coach,” Leat says.
She’s also quick to credit her time playing with her brother for developing her physicality and always challenging her to contest on the pitch.
“Personally, I’m not afraid to hit the ground super-hard or go into any collision. I’m always waking up with bruises and bumps. That’s the part I love,” she says.
Leat’s background in martial arts has also contributed to her knack of saving goals.
She excelled in karate at a young age, first representing New Zealand in 2009, as a seven-year-old, at a regional age-group tournament in Japan. At nine, she was part of the New Zealand team which competed at the Commonwealth championships in Australia.
She made it to a purple belt before deciding to focus her attention on football.
“Karate definitely helped my goal keeping in terms of my hand-eye coordination, reaction and just general competitiveness. I want to win the contest every time,” she says.
Leat has continued to match it with the boys as well, this year turning out for the East Coast Bays Reserves men’s team after the club got a dispensation for Leat to play.
The experience, she believes, has been hugely beneficial to her game, and she’s been made to feel part of the team.
Fitting schoolwork into the football equation is another challenge Leat is happy to take on. On tour, there's time set aside for players to complete their study, and Leat is grateful that her school has been flexible around her sporting and academic commitments.
Next year, Leat wants to head to the United States on a football scholarship. She is in negotiations with several schools that have successful football programmes, so she can continue to develop as a player.
She wants to focus on a high-quality education with an environmental focus, and bring what she learns back to New Zealand to make positive change. Earlier in the year, she applied to be the Youth MP for the Green Party.
Leat also sees an education in the States as a pathway to her ultimate football dream - to play for New Zealand at the 2020 Olympics.
The priority for 2019 will be the women’s World Cup in France in June. Leat, who so far has three caps for the Football Ferns, has set herself the goal of making that team, but she will miss the qualifiers later this month because she will be in Uruguay with the U17 national side.
It’s the second time Leat has played at an U17 World Cup – she was part of the New Zealand team at the 2016 tournament in Jordan.This time the team’s goal is to make history by advancing past the group stage for the first time.
The Football Ferns have had a tough year off the pitch with the resignation of coach Andreas Heraf in July off the back of 13 players making a complaint about his behavior and coaching style. The ensuing report outlined 22 recommendations to address the culture of the organisation and at the heart of the report is athlete welfare.
For a young player in the formative stages of her senior international career, Leat says that hasn’t been ideal. But she’s managed to stay focused on the job at hand.
“I guess it’s just a new beginning. We just want to leave any negativity in the past and move on to bigger and better things,” she says.
She’s looking forward to working with the new national coach, Tom Sermanni. “I definitely agree with his point that we have a lot of potential,” Leat says. “He’s got loads of experience which I think we can all benefit from it.”