This week, TribalFootball.com talked exclusively with Venezuelan international Mariana Speckmaier, who has been a revelation for Wellington Phoenix of the A-League Women this season, as they are in the thick of the top six teams chasing a post-season spot, with 16 points after nine games for third place.
We also examine some data points from a recent report by the New Zealand Football Federation on the Legacy of co-hosting the 2023 Women's World Cup, and some of the positives that are being felt at the grassroots level, as well as the effect that Wellington Phoenix had to the build-up to that event.
Mariana Speckmaier—from backup in the NWSL and Iceland to an important leader of Wellington Phoenix's frontline and revival this season.
Mariana Speckmaier was born and grew up in the U.S., played with the Washington Spirit in the NWSL, in Iceland with Valur and internationally for Venezuela; she has had a huge impact this season for her new club Wellington Phoenix, which, after nine games, sits in third place with 16 points and is solidly within the expanded playoff spots for 2023-24 (six places, up from four in past years). Mariana Speckmaier talked exclusively with TribalFootball.com just ahead of the holiday season about the Phoenix's season to date and her thoughts on having a major impact on a professional club side for the first time.
When asked what she thought of the Phoenix's season to date in exceeding expectations—after finishing bottom of the league in their first two seasons in the A-League Women—Speckmaier said: "It's been amazing. The style of soccer we've been able to produce on the field has been awesome—it's been really fun being here and getting to experience this with all these girls has been an amazing opportunity and I've enjoyed it so much so far."
Speckmaier, who just turned 26 on Boxing Day, is viewed as somewhat of a veteran in Wellington for a traditionally young side in a league that has had two 14-year-olds play earlier this year (see last week's column: The Week in Women's Football: A-League review (Part II);welcoming Bournemouth owner Foley to Auckland - Tribal Football). Speckmaier explained: "It's crazy, I'm like the third oldest player on the team [behind Football Ferns veteran midfielder Annalie Longo (32) and forward Michaela Robertson (27) and just ahead of Canadian international goalkeeper Rylee Foster (25)]. It's something I'm definitely new to but I am glad that I could bring the experiences that I have had to the other girls and be one of the leaders on the team."
She expanded on the style of play of the Phoenix and explained: "Paul's [Temple—first-year head coach] has been trying to install a version of possession with a purpose but a very aggressive version of it—we don't like to kick the ball forward, because we have such quality on the field… I think we have had very good moments. It's not perfect yet but we are getting to know each other. You can see those bits and moments for us where magic happens on full pressure and every game it gets better and better. It's awesome to be part of this type of soccer and this style of play."
For the rest of the season, she was clear that: "We all have the expectation that we are more than capable of reaching the playoffs and even winning the league with the players that we have. Obviously, this club is still quite new but this team has total belief that we can go as far as we want ourselves to go and we are just as good as any of the other teams in this league, especially at the top of the table."
Venezuelan international Mariana Spackman (centre), dribbles away from Philippines international defender and Western United team captain Jacklyn Sawicki [far right] during the 2023-24 season. Photo courtesy of Wellington Phoenix Media Department.
This year has been so different for the Phoenix from their first two seasons for multiple reasons and it is still astounding and wonderful to hear that the Phoenix are so confident about making the playoffs this season. In 2023-24, they have been aided by five imports from North America: Speckmaier, Foster, forward Hope Breslin (24), who has been with the Houston Dash and Angel City over the past two years, defender Hailey Davidson (23), who played last season with Mallbacken in Sweden's Elitettan (second tier) after finishing at the University of Pittsburgh—where she played for three seasons after two with the University of Oklahoma—and U.S. U-20 international Isabel Cox, who played at collegiate powerhouse University of North Carolina.
In their first two seasons, the Phoenix couldn't bring in any international imports because, if they did, they would have to make an offsetting reduction in the number of their New Zealand internationals, along with carrying a set quota of Australian nationals. Ahead of the WWC in 2023, the priority for the club and the New Zealand Football Federation was to give experience to their younger Football Ferns national team pool players, including those who played with the U-17 and U-20 national teams. In addition, in 2021-22, the Pheonix had to play their home games in the Sydney area [in Goolagong] because of COVID travel restrictions in the region, not playing a home game in Wellington until year two.
Speckmaier found that, as a recent college grad [from Clemson University in South Carolina] her minutes were quite low in her first season with the NWSL's Washington Spirit, though she won a 2021 league title with the club but only played 93 minutes across three games that season, even though she was selected in the fourth round of that season's college draft.
In her efforts to receive more playing time at the club level, particularly ahead of the Copa America Feminina for Venezuela in the summer of 2022, which doubled as the 2023 WWC Finals Regional Qualifiers, she even signed a deal with CSKA Moscow of Russia just before their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, after training with the club in pre-season in Turkey.
She felt that it was: "Best not to go, with everything going on there, purely for safety reasons."
CSKA Moscow wasn't pleased with her decision but then FIFA allowed all internationals playing in the country [as well as in Ukraine] to legally break their contracts. She could see CSKA Moscow's perspective: "Understandably I get that but obviously, I see things differently with the war. For me it felt like it wasn't the safest option for me. I was quite excited to go to the team and experience something new and different, but after conversations with my family, it didn't seem right to go. Obviously it's not how I wanted things to go down or end; I understand where they were coming from but I had to do what was best for me in that moment."
Instead, she joined Icelandic club Valur of Reykjavik. After playing for Venezuela in the 2022 Copa America Femenina, she returned to Iceland and found a settled side and again received little playing time at Valur. Once again, she won a league title as Valur won the Besta deild kvenna title and Super Cup in 2022. Speckmaier also scored in a UEFA Women's Champions League qualifier; however, she was limited in her minutes for the club.
Before joining Wellington Phoenix heading into the 2023-24 season, she returned to the D.C. Spirit as a national team replacement player during the 2023 WWC Finals but she again saw limited action. She explained her difficult adjustment to the professional game: "I went from playing almost 90 minutes every game in college [at Clemson] to basically the complete opposite once I became professional. You definitely learn a lot. It was tough for sure. I'm grateful to be given this opportunity from Paul [Temple] to show I can play at this level and impact a team."
At Clemson she scored 25 goals and added 29 assists over four years.
She has been playing with Venezuela for years and scored the country's first-ever FIFA U-20 World Cup goal at the 2016 Finals in Papua New Guinea. She talked about how things have improved in support and funding, but more can be done: "For Venezuela, we don't have the resources like in the U.S. The [Venezuelan] Federation is improving in more equality. Men's soccer is still bigger but the pay is getting better."
Venezuela's head coach is former Italian international midfielder Pamela Conte [with 90 caps and 30 goals], who played professionally at home, in Russia, Sweden, Spain and in the W-League in the U.S.; she started her position with Venezuela in late 2019. Speckmaier said: "It [women's football] is growing; in the last 10 years we were one of the bottom teams to being somewhat of a contender and the talent is growing."
Speckmaier is playing in Wellington on a one-year contract and as for where she intends to play next, she explained: "I am honestly open to anything. I don't know if I want to go back to the U.S. at the moment. This is my first true season [at playing full-time] and I am enjoying the process."
She has been hugely impactful and had scored two goals after eight games. Just a few days after TribalFootball.com's interview with Speckmaier, she scored the winning goal in a Round 9 match on December 23 in a 2-0 win against the Newcastle Jets, from a 34th minute penalty kick in front of 2,614 fans in the New Zealand capital city.
Speckmaier felt that the NWSL, in comparison to the A-League Women: "is a higher level at this moment because of the level of football that is produced there from a young age—there is higher development there [in the States]. The A-League [Women] is quite competitive and the league has grown a lot in the past few years. I have really enjoyed my time here and think I have grown a lot in the little bit of time I have played here. I think leagues like here and others give you more opportunity for players who don't get as much time in the U.S. This league helps you grow, as much as any other league, as a player."
She then pointed out that she would advise a player in college in the U.S., coming out of a non-name program [though she played at Clemson in the uber-competitive SEC or Southeastern Conference]: "There is always the exception, particularly a player from a small school, if you are not a first or second round draft pick [in the NWSL], you tend to not get many minutes or even dress so you end up just training for the most part; so if you really want that experience on the field, probably going abroad is the better option. Sometimes I look back and think I should have done that first before going to the NWSL. Either way, there is no really wrong choice. I enjoyed my time with the Spirit… Regardless you will get some experience that will help you with your future career."
Speckmaier concluded the interview with her unhesitant feeling that: "I definitely think there's a belief in the [Phoenix] squad. We have the talent. The talent within the team is incredible. We are a team to watch out for this season."
The Phoenix has been a delightful story in 2023-24 and, with the restrictions off on signing internationals, they are well positioned to make the playoffs in season three and could do some damage to their A-League Women opponents in the knock-out rounds, utilizing a strong base of North American imports like Mariana Speckmaier and others who have international caps.
New Zealand's Women's World Cup Finals Hosting Impact: A Review of Aotearoa United—Legacy Impact Report 2021-23
At the end of 2023, New Zealand's Football Federation released a report summarizing the impact of hosting the 2023 Women's World Cup last summer. Some of the findings in this report help to justify the decision to have New Zealand co-host the 2023 WWC Finals with Australia, rather than FIFA going with the safer option of hosting all the games in Australia, with their larger stadiums and a much more competitive national team.
Andrew Pagnell, the CEO of the NZFF, pointed out that the nation had 145,000 registered footballers, 400 clubs, 6 sub-federations and 1.1 million football fans (from GEMBA research) (Page 4). Some highlights from the report include:
- Over half of New Zealanders indicated they were more interested in women's football [as a result of the 2023 WWC Finals being held in the country], with this finding driven by men aged 25-34. Source: GEMBA 2023 Women's Sporting Landscape Report (page 9).
- There was a total reach across social media channels of 17.6 million for the Ford Football Ferns WNT content for the period of January thru November 2023 (Page 14).
- There were 4.4 million views on New Zealand Football's YouTube channel so far in 2023 and a 295% increase in Ford Football Ferns Instagram followers in 2023, currently at 32,500. There was a 7,313 increase in likes on the Ford Football Ferns Facebook page, a 50% increase in 2023. In addition, there were 633,000 total views on the most popular Ford Football Ferns TikTok Video (Page 14).
- Over two million Kiwis (2.1 million) tuned in to watch coverage of the FIFA WWC 2023, with 1 million viewers in Aotearoa, New Zealand watching the opening game, in which New Zealand shocked the world by outplaying Norway and winning their first ever WWC Finals game 1-0 (Page 17).
- Seven-hundred thousand tickets in total were sold in Aotearoa New Zealand for the tournament games (Page 17).
- FIFA said that 2 billion people worldwide watched the games of the 2023 WWC, an increase of 66% over 2019 in France, though the tournament was expanded from 24 to 32 teams for 2023 (Page 17).
- Regarding sports media coverage in New Zealand overall, 44.5% was dedicated to women's sport during the tournament, the highest ever. Source: Sport NZ's Media and Gender Study – FIFA WWC Case Study (Page 17).
Focusing on the Wellington Phoenix's contribution to the Football Ferns:
- Nineteen New Zealand players were given their professional debuts while playing for Wellington Phoenix, with five making their Football Ferns debut while playing for the Phoenix (Page 20).
- Six former or current Wellington Phoenix players were part of the FIFA Women's World Cup squad, plus two called in for training purposes (Page 20).
- Nine Kiwi players played in the A-League Women before the Phoenix were founded ahead of the 2021-22 season, with more than a three-fold increase of 29 Kiwis playing in the A-League Women since the Phoenix started (Page 20).
As for infrastructure gains for the sport as a result of the tournament:
- Government funding contributed to the infrastructure upgrades at 30 of the sporting facilities shortlisted for the tournament, including pitch, lighting and facility upgrades, as well as gender-equal changing spaces (Page 23). Note: Women's World Cup Finals games were held in four cities: Auckland, Dunedin, Hamilton and Wellington, with training sites for teams held in three outlying locations. Christchurch was a final bidder for games which was not selected by FIFA.
- A total of $19.1m in funding was received from the government and Sport NZ for upgrades to infrastructure: 32 sites received investment to meet FIFA requirements; 18 FIFA training sites that are used for football received upgrades; 4 multi-sport sites received upgrades to facilities; 2 sites that were shortlisted but ultimately not selected by FIFA did receive upgraded infrastructure (Page 23).
- Sandy Cumpstone, Wellington United committee member and Capital Football's WWC Legacy and Inclusion Manager, discussed the importance of these facility upgrades for the growth of the women's game: "It's the little things, like appropriate signage, lighting, and private showers, that will make the biggest difference… Female footballers rarely showered at the park after their matches due to the facility's open plan layout and lack of privacy. Now, they will come in and think: 'This is a space that I can actually use and feel that I belong in'." (Page 23).
- A total of $400,000 worth of assets used during the FIFA Women's World Cup were redistributed to clubs across the country, benefiting communities beyond the host cities. The redistribution of game and training equipment used during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 was opened up for community clubs to submit expressions of interest. A total of 50 clubs were selected and received equipment that included boxed and portable goals, free kick mannequins, hurdles, ball pumps and pressure gauges, ice boxes, agility cones and poles, speed ladders, ice machines and ice baths, ice boxes, yoga mats and massage tables. In total, 4,524 pieces of equipment were available for redistribution, with 104 full-sized goals and 108 training goals redistributed to clubs. The selection of clubs was based on having a female pathway and commitment to growing the female game, female representation on club boards and/or committees, and a plan to retain and increase female participation. This ensured that the legacy of the FIFA Women's World Cup recognized clubs with a gender equity focus. One of the recipients', Simona Wallwork, Club Administrator from Nomads United, expressed her thanks for the gifts: "In the world of sports, high-quality equipment isn't just gear; it's a game-changer that elevates the playing experience for players. The equipment we received from the FIFA Women's World Cup has meant that our girls and women's passion for the beautiful game can now flourish even more. Thank you, New Zealand Football and FIFA." (Page 25).
A total of 29 matches were held in New Zealand, and though there were some small crowds in Dunedin and Hamilton along with some inclement weather, the high points were the opening game sellout of 42,137 at Eden Park in Auckland to see the host side defeat Norway, 20,957 in Wellington to see Japan defeat the ultimate champions Spain 4-0 in their last group game, 42,958 in Auckland to see the U.S. tie Portugal 0-0 in their last group game, with a late Portuguese shot bouncing off of the post or the Americans could have missed the knockout stage; and Spain's wins over Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden in the Round of 16, Quarterfinal and Semifinal, which helped to keep interest in the tournament after the Football Ferns were eliminated.
The growth of the game in New Zealand is also important to the growth of the game in the island nations of Oceania, where these nations recruit among their diaspora and for coaches, so hosting in New Zealand had a benefit beyond the co-host and it will be interesting to track the knock-on effect in future years in both New Zealand and throughout Oceania.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham is on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey