90min are releasing a series of articles from some of women's football's leading figures – on and off the pitch – around the SheBelieves Cup in the US. Here, Chelsea's Ali Riley talks about being a leader, and being an LA-born New Zealand international.
It was probably 100 degrees in Pasadena for the 1999 World Cup final. There I was, sitting with my parents right behind the goal where Brandi Chastain scored the final penalty in the shootout for the USA. It was insane. That year I had wanted to be Mia Hamm, but eventually I changed my mind. I wanted to be like the US goalkeeper Briana Scurry.
I had an image in my head of being a keeper and winning a gold medal at the Olympics; I even drew a picture that I had on the back of my bedroom door that said ‘Alexandra Riley – Goalkeeper USA’. In the picture I’ve got a gold medal around my neck.
It was just a stick figure with gloves but that image stuck with me: “I’m going to the Olympics, I’m going to be a goalkeeper and I’m going to win that gold medal.” Only one of those things came true...but I’ll take that.
The first Women’s World Cup was held in 1991 so the ‘99 tournament was only the third, but the fact that the US had been involved heavily in those early tournaments created an environment where young girls then were encouraged to play soccer as they grew up.
Seeing that 1999 team be so successful gave me this belief that girls are awesome, and that they can do anything – but between the ages of probably 12 years old to the time I became an elite player, my dream of going to the Olympics and being a top professional died a little.
I said, “I’m going to the Olympics, I’m going to be a goalkeeper and I’m going to win that gold medal.” Only one of those things came true...but I’ll take that.
It became clear to me that we didn’t have a professional league in the USA that I could be a part of. There were no YouTube highlights, and no women’s football regularly on TV, so I didn’t know there were professional leagues in other countries.
I was desperate to play football, but I still didn’t feel it was a viable job. That was until the American league came back my junior year of college. During high school, and even in my first year at Stanford, I thought I’d probably play college football then get a ‘real job’.
During my senior year of high school my dad, who is from New Zealand, saw a news article that said Australia’s men’s team was leaving the Oceania confederation to join the Asia confederation. Why did that matter? Australia were doing it because the Asia confederation had more guaranteed World Cup spots. Oceania, on the other hand, only had half a spot. Even if you won the World Cup qualifiers, you would still have to go for a playoff to make it through to the tournament.
Of course at that time, they took the women’s team with them, which left New Zealand with a real chance to get through to the World Cup in the Oceania confederation, and it just so happened that New Zealand were looking to invest in their women’s football team. My dad saw this (I don’t know how, given that we lived in LA!) and emailed the coach of the New Zealand national team saying, “Hey, my daughter is eligible to play for you.”
No one got back to him for a while, but months later John Herdman – who was appointed the coach – was checking through old emails and found the email from my Dad! He replied saying, ‘great we need as many players as we can get!’ We sent a DVD over to him, and the next thing I knew I was being invited to go and play in a couple of friendly matches before the Under-20 World Cup in Australia in the spring.
I was 18 at the time, and if you were going to make it within USWNT setup you were already in the Olympic development program or playing with the US national team age group teams by that age. I was never invited to any of those camps, and I realised I might not be a goalkeeper at the Olympics for the USA – although to be fair, at that point I was an attacker!
However, I also thought, “I haven’t had an opportunity so far to play for the US national team, but I’ve now got a chance to play for New Zealand at the first ever Under-20 World Cup...I might as well go for it.” I flew to Australia on my own and loved every second. The core group from that Under-20 side are still in the New Zealand senior team now.
The US had known who I was, they watched me play at that Under-20 World Cup and I never heard from them. With less than 12 months to go to the 2007 World Cup there was a real opportunity that I could play for the New Zealand senior team, so I did, and didn’t look back. I went, we got demolished, but it was the coolest experience ever.
Hopefully now with the New Zealand national team we’re starting to show young girls that going to World Cups and Olympic games is a very tangible and real thing.
The next year I played at the Olympics as well (still not in goal), which was amazing, and no one ever talked about the fact that I could have played for the US.
Things started going really well back at Stanford and we were progressing into national championships and I was looking at getting drafted to play professionally. Suddenly people started asking, “Why don’t you play for the US?! You could have waited?!” But I had made my decision.
I’ve learned so much about the New Zealand culture. I’ve discovered a lot about the history of New Zealand and I’ve also learned a lot about myself. The game is so different when you’re the underdog and you’re not the team that is expected to win. The players playing for New Zealand now are pioneers and are inspiring a generation of young women.
It’s certainly been interesting playing against the US. I’m very proud to be both Kiwi and from the US. The last time we played I sang both national anthems. This is the path that I took and it wasn’t really ever a choice. What’s also interesting is how the choices that I have made have shaped me as a person.
I’ve seen so much of the world. The first qualifiers that I played were in Samoa. The next one’s were in Papua New Guinea, and I was just recently in New Caledonia. When would I have ever been to these places?! Even being in New Zealand, which is such an amazing country. Experiencing these cultures, seeing the world has impacted me so much.
Like most players I have this incredibly competitive streak, where I always wanted to be the best. I wanted to be the best at a junior level. Then I wanted to be the best to get into Stanford. Then when I got to Stanford I wanted to be the best player at Stanford. Then I wanted for our team to be the best team and win the national championship. It’s just drilled into you from an early age that you need to win.
I really hope that future generations of players don’t ever feel like if they lose a game, that could mean their funding is cut.
Then suddenly...I found myself on a New Zealand national team which, really, had only just been created. It made me realise that there is so much more beyond winning and being the best.
This knowledge really affected me as a player. I don’t want to say it affected me in a negative way, but it certainly has affected me. For example, I usually choose to pass the ball to a team mate if I see them in a better position to score as opposed to taking the chance to shoot myself. I think to be a top attacker you need ruthlessness, you need that ego.
But, because I was in this team in my early 20s that was like my family, where we lost all the time but the most important thing was to really encourage each other, where we were helping to inspire other young girls, where you’re travelling to places where you see poverty first hand, the part of me that had this ego and selfish drive really took a back seat. Being an attacker it was a really odd thing to experience.
During my junior year of college, a new really brilliant striker arrived and the coach said, “Maybe we should try a different position, how about left-back?” That really suited me!
Not only had I become less of a selfish player, but my experiences meant I’d transitioned to become more of a leader. When I think about creating a legacy, it’s more likely that people will think that I was someone who helped create a great team environment, was someone positively impacted others and made them feel like they could achieve anything.
Hopefully now with the New Zealand national team we’re starting to show young girls that they can have the same dream that I had. That for them, going to World Cups and Olympic games are a very tangible and real thing. We’re at a stage in women’s football where being successful doesn’t just mean success on the pitch, it means more funding, more resources, better facilities.
Of course the longer that you’re in tournaments the more exposure you get, so there’s a still pressure on to perform. If we were to be able to get out of the group stage at this year’s World Cup we’d be the first ever New Zealand team to win a game at a World Cup. That would also have huge ramifications in terms of our funding and how our funding is structured moving forward for the next four years.
I really hope for future generations that the young players don’t ever feel like if they lose a game, that could mean their funding could be cut and they may not get to play for their country again.
Right now I dedicate so much of my time trying to become the best possible player for Chelsea and New Zealand. I want to be the best player that I can be, but, again because of my experiences with New Zealand I try to spend a load of time outside of football following many of my other passions.
Maybe my personality has both shaped and been shaped by my career. To be the very best at something you have to have a one track mind and a single minded unwavering focus on that one thing. But now, at 31, I think what I’m doing is trying my best at a lot of things to make the biggest impact I can in the world.