Much of the world knows New Zealand for one sport: rugby. After all, the small country’s rugby men, the All Blacks, have won three Rugby Union World Cups (1987, 2011, 2015) on nine finals appearances. Not to be outdone, the nation’s rugby women, known as the Black Ferns, have won the Women’s Rugby Union World Cup six times, most recently in 2021.
Yet after Sunday’s conclusion of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, one ex-soccer star thinks her sport has a bright future. But longtime New Zealand international Rose White has always been big on soccer’s future.
“Yeah, historically, New Zealand has been a rugby nation—rugby, cricket, and netball have been the big three. Soccer was often a very popular sport for kids to play,” White said during our Zoom last week. She made sure, however, to point out the huge television ratings that the women’s soccer tournament got.
But she added, “(Soccer) has been growing fast outside Europe, and the thing that’s super interesting is with the World Cup happening in New Zealand, the TV viewership has exceeded that of the All Blacks.”
Right after kickoff, Forbes reported that ratings for the FIFA Women’s World Cup were record-breaking worldwide. After last weekend’s final, Reuters reported more sky-high ratings, with records broken in England and Spain, home nations of the two final contenders.
“If there are more people in New Zealand watching the Women’s World Cup than watching the men’s Rugby (Union) World Cup—that’s amazing to see.”
The 30-year-old ex-forward took on a new role as a TV sports analyst during this summer’s FIFA event. White took to the broadcast booth during the action as a color commentator for Sky.
In the final match Sunday, Spain bested England 1-0 to win their first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup. Notably, perennial soccer giants Germany and the USA crashed out early, while co-host New Zealand failed to advance to the knockout stage after being tied on points in Group A with Norway, who advanced on goal difference.
White, who scored 24 goals in 110 caps for New Zealand, was also a two-time Olympian and three-time Women’s World Cup player. She played in two of three New Zealand matches in both the of FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany in 2011 and Canada in 2015.
White explained that women’s game has long been dominated on the international circuit by the USA and also European clubs like Chelsea, Barcelona, and Olympique Lyonnais.
But the game is being embraced more universally, White explained. And this year’s World Cup has been part of that.
“New Zealand’s team doesn’t play as much at home for fans to see. But soccer has grown in popularity,” White adds, and she thinks it has a bright future.
After playing with a trio of different youth clubs in New Zealand as a precocious teen player, White began her professional career after her time at UCLA by joining Liverpool in 2015. She spent two seasons at Liverpool, scoring four goals in 22 appearances, before coming to the U.S. to play in the NWSL.
White then spent a season with the Boston Breakers (2017) and the Chicago Red Stars (2018) before spending her last three pro years in Seattle with the Reign. There, she played alongside USA international Megan Rapinoe and also played with Rose Lavelle in Boston and Julie Ertz in Chicago.
“My experience in the NWSL was a roller coaster,” White said. “Last year, the league was in the news for a lot of negative reasons.”
In 2021, Farid Benstiti, who was the head coach of the OL Reign, where White last played, followed a number of complaints of abuse, disparaging players’ fitness and body health. Other NWSL coaches, such as Richie Burke of the Washington Spirit and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley came under fire and were dismissed after an investigation and rampant allegations of abuse.
“The NWSL has had its own challenges the treatment of players, quality of coaches and facilities, pay equity—and it’s come a lot way in a short period. But the NWSL is also home of a lot of the world’s best international players.”
White concluded her professional soccer career as a member of NWSL’s OL Reign in 2021. But she hints that things are on the rebound for America’s 12-team league.
“I think the trajectory of the NWSL, now, is very exciting.”
White added that the diversity of the NWSL, especially of players from different countries who learn the game in different styles, adds to the difficulty of the league and how it strengthens players.
“Playing against different styles helps you become a well-rounded player. If you only play against players with a similar style, you adapt to that,” White said.
White points out, however, that until recently, the NWSL only allowed two international players per team. And since that rule has changed, a greater crop pf international players in the NWSL has improved the play.
“(Now) there are American and Canadian players, European and South American players. It prepares you to play a powerful, speedy team on the international stage, or at least figure out how to deal with it.”
Battling on the pitch and off
White currently lives in Seattle, and prior to her career as a professional and a New Zealand international, she first came to the United States to play soccer at UCLA (2011-2014).
During her first season playing for the Bruins at age 19, White was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC), a chronic disease that causes painful gastrointestinal symptoms that tend to have a negative impact on daily life.
“At first, I didn’t want to come to terms with it,” White says about their condition, then and now. “As an athlete, you’re supposed to be fit and be strong, and personally, it’s always been part of my identity as a player.”
While long retired as a player, White feels it’s important to be an advocate both for athletes and everyday people suffering from UC. As such, White has partnered up with Bristol Myers SquibbBMY to increase awareness and access to information about the condition.
“I always want to be fit and strong,” White also said that after her diagnosis of UC, “I wasn’t as able to push as much as I wanted because of my body.”
But she said it took an episode of her “going to the hospital” to speak up about her condition and even allow teammates to know.
There are approximately 600,000 to 900,000 people in the United States living with UC — a chronic, immune-mediated inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Symptoms can be unique to each patient and hard to predict, but range from pain and frequent trips to the bathroom to chronic inflammation and worse.
As a part of White’s partnership with Bristol Myers Squibb, patients, and their family members can reference the sprout website www.Supporting withUC.com for downloadable lifestyle tips for living with moderate to severe ulcerative colitis.
“You have to talk about it and have a good relationship with your doctor,” Whet added. “Players and other people (with UC) are dealing with all kinds of issues. The stress of trying to hide it or deal with it all on your own only adds to your symptoms, in my experience.”
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