25 Feb 2017

Money talks as Erceg walks

9:25 am on 25 February 2017

Opinion - It has been a big week for women's sport in Aotearoa, however it hasn't all been great news.

Football Fern captain Abby Erceg in action against Colombia in Brazil, in group play at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Football Fern captain Abby Erceg Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The White Ferns managed to crush Australia in their one-day series, which is a big deal given the profile of women's cricket on the other side of the Tasman these days.

It's not just cricket that is thriving, either. Along with the Women's Big Bash, this summer saw the launch of the Women's Australian Football League. Crowds have exceeded expectations so much that organisers have had to turn people away at the gate.

However, back here, one of our best had to walk away from a national team because of the lack of support she was receiving.

130-cap Football Fern captain Abby Erceg, regarded as one of the world's best players, has called time on an international career at age 27 - probably with about six or seven years' worth of gas left in her tank.

Why is this happening? Is it a gender issue, or simply another chapter in the comically inept New Zealand Football administration? Well, it is a bit of both.

Erceg's frustration at not being paid an allowance while being involved in the Ferns has come about because of a funding cut, due to New Zealand Football's reliance on a grant from High Performance Sport New Zealand.

The continuation of this grant hinged on the team's performance at the highly competitive Rio Olympics, in which the Football Ferns were eliminated in the group stage. Never mind that they qualified for the World Cup, recently beat Brazil or that the under-20s made the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup. The cut-throat world of high-performance funding has left the Ferns with barely any operational budget, meaning players have to sacrifice more than just sweat on the pitch to represent the country.

Maia Jackman, the woman who used to have Erceg's job, has also spoken of the realities of what it is like to be a top female footballer in New Zealand.

"It's tough to tell employers that you're going to be on tour, and that's if you even know if you're a full-time starter. If you're a fringe player, you're not so sure. You can take them the annual programme and say 'well I might be here around this time and I might not be'. Most employers are like 'yeah, nah'," she says.

Balancing study is just as difficult, with of her one teammates taking over 10 years to work on a degree they have not even finished. Some players find it difficult to even afford enough to eat a proper diet.

In Jackman's words, it's tough for players to come out the other end of a football career and see their friends with houses and kids. What do they have for their efforts?

"Abby's move isn't saying 'pay us 60 grand a year', it's just to give us a helping hand. A lot is being asked of the girls and they put in the effort, but that doesn't make it sustainable."

The allowance that Erceg had been striving for used to be there for the Ferns, but it was only half of what the All Whites received.

The achievements of sportswomen in New Zealand is something we can justifiably be proud of, whether it's Lydia Ko, Eliza McCartney or the Football and White Ferns. However, when a player of Erceg's stature has to quit because she just simply cannot afford to be pulling on the shirt anymore, it reminds us that not all is equal.

Of course, financial pressures are unfortunately pretty standard for any sport not called rugby union or America's Cup yachting in New Zealand.

This problem, though, could be solved if the team had a fully committed sponsor who was open enough to take inspiration from the explosion of interest in female sport across the ditch. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to get in on the ground floor with a women's football programme that has had unprecedented success over the last few years.

After all, it's only the biggest sport in the world.

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