Māori Football Aotearoa finalists in prestigious sports awards

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When Māori Football Aotearoa was announced as a finalist in the annual New Zealand Sport and Recreation Awards, chairman and kaitiaki Phill Parker was somewhat incredulous.

But once the shock wore off, Parker realised the enormity of the organisation being named alongside New Zealand Rugby and Waka Ama NZ as a finalist in the inaugural Māori Participation category of the Sport New Zealand/Ihi Aotearoa New Zealand Sport and Recreation Awards.

“It was a bit of misunderstanding initially, and then total shock and I didn’t really take it in because I was thinking about all the other initiatives and projects we have pending and are dreaming of. It wasn’t really until a friend text me saying congratulations that I looked closer and realised we are national finalists, within a group with Māori Rugby and Waka Ama. That’s when it hit me, this is Sport NZ and its annual awards!” Parker said.

The Māori Participation Taonga has been introduced for the first time this year to acknowledge an outstanding individual, group or organisation that contributes to whānau, hapū and Māori Wellbeing through physical activity.

Māori Football Aotearoa was founded in 2008 to attract more Māori to football and future success both on and off the field, and continues to empower Māori through a commitment to innovative and development-focused activities.

Parker says the then to now journey has been long and somewhat arduous, making the recognition by Sport New Zealand all the more rewarding.

The start of it all for Māori Football Aotearoa. Image: Supplied

“It’s been a real grind over the years. It’s required heaps of perseverance and being resilient. We’re still not getting sustainable financial resourcing, but that’s part of the grind I guess,” he said.

“It started with a small group of 8-10-year-old children, one men’s futsal team and a tiny five team festival in Whangarei and since then it has taken on a life of its own as different elements came to life, particularly the Tikanga o the Whaiaro education programme and Akokura Football Festival.

“In a lot of ways, it’s actually gone way over my personal expectations. This kaupapa has become so much more than just putting out teams, although in saying that, that is a key driver, to get out people to come to the code because we just want to play.”

The significance of being named finalists alongside New Zealand Rugby and Waka Ama NZ in a category of the awards which recognises the efforts of an organisation’s commitment to taha tinana (physical wellbeing), taha hinengaro (mental wellbeing) and taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing) has not been lost on Parker, given the lessons he’s taken from such organisations over the years.

“It’s unreal to be nominated alongside these organisations, surreal to be honest,” Parker said.

“These are our tuakana codes, we’ve watched and learned many lessons from their will and mobility to stay strong to the kaupapa. They are the role models and they optimise Māori sporting potential in so many ways. This is what we aspire to be, like them in wairua (spirit), but also not like them them because we are a different code with our own dreams.”

Parker said looking outside of football for inspiration in the space of Māori wellbeing and participation is something he and Māori Football Aotearoa have always done, while always putting their own spin on what they’re seeing and learning to ensure it works in the football environment.

“Our origins were formed from the Māori All Blacks values when Matua Matt Te Pou was the coach. I met with him in 2007 down in Whakatane to ask his advice. He told me straight; ‘it’s going to be tough for youse, you will face adversity and resistance from a lot of areas in your code but if you true (tika), honest (pono) and you live your love (aroha), you can come out on top for our people that like soccer’.

“This inspired the dream, the unthinkable and not settling for anyone or anything saying we don’t aspire because of no competition. So we made our own competitions for our people. I never forget what he said that day, and the promise I made my mum.”

Māori Football Aoteara has grown to the point where it now has four active representative teams: Ngā Tane Whanapoikiri, Ngā Wahine Whanapoikiri, Ngā Tama Whanapoikiri and Ngā Kotiro/Hine Whanapoikiri.

The organisation also created the North vs South, Clash of the Cultures, Trans-Tasman Series and Akokura Football Festival, and participates in the NZ Communities Football Cup.

More recently, like many sports across the board, COVID-19 changed the way Māori Football operates and forced it not only to adapt its plans, but to rethink its long-term priorities.

“As crazy as it sounds, COVID-19 has been a strange blessing for us,” Parker explained.

“It made us look inward, and we realised we had reverse engineered how we’re doing about things. We went straight to the top-line, teams at the highest level we could reach within a foundation of children and young people at grassroots level.

“Somehow we didn’t fall over and just kept climbing, even without that foundation and when I think about this it’s impossible! Unheard of in any code, really.

“When we couldn’t travel or play internationally anymore so we needed to keep our people engaged with the kaupapa, so we created football’s first ever North vs South activity. It took us around Aotearoa and we found so many more Māori wanted to play and be proud to play as Māori.”

Parker said the realisation that the organisation can still offer more to the community is both scary and inspiring.

It also represents a whole lot more work, but work he, the board, and all the volunteers involved in the Māori Football Aotearoa are willing to do to ensure their passion for the game is shared far and wide, and the opportunities for more Māori to get involved in football grows.

“We’ve started looking more closely at the regionalisation for Māori playing football in ways of regional festivals and/or tournaments, but it’s a huge task because it will take off and we will need so many more volunteers, coaches, officials and administrators.

“It’s actually quite scary when I think about it deeply, but what an exciting future that could be for Māori, and the code in general.”

The winners of the Sport New Zealand/Ihi Aotearoa New Zealand Sport and Recreation Awards will be announced at a ceremony on 21 June at Claudelands Event Centre in Hamilton. Twenty finalists have been shortlisted across five main category awards.

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