By Suzanne McFadden
One of NZ football's greats, Maia Jackman hopes she won't drop the ball at Saturday's Fifa Women's World Cup draw, and tells Suzanne McFadden about being bullied, writing a book, and her empathy with dropped Black Ferns captain, Les Elder.
For the second time in her fêted football career, Maia Jackman will play a part in the super-hyped draw for the Fifa Women's World Cup.
The first time was 15 years ago, when the menacing defender played in the Fifa All Stars World XI as part of the draw for the 2007 World Cup, in a match against the host nation China.
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She's the only Football Fern to earn the honour (they don't play All Stars games these days) and she went on to be named one of the defenders of that World Cup tournament.
This Saturday, Jackman will be on stage at Auckland's Aotea Centre, drawing out the names of teams who'll play in Aotearoa in the 2023 Women's World Cup, kicking off at Eden Park in July next year.
"I never thought I'd be up on the stage pulling out the names," she laughs. "I'm hugely excited."
Because as Jackman knows, it's a massive deal. She'll go through three dress rehearsals to make sure she gets it right.
She's one of eight draw assistants – all ANZAC legends of sport like New Zealand's Winter Olympics golden girl Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Australian triple Olympic swimming champion Cate Campbell. The 32 teams will be allocated into eight groups of four - half will be based in New Zealand and half in Australia for the group stages.
Among the 800 guests at the draw will be former world football legends and Fifa's top brass. And a global audience of millions is expected to be watching.
"The draw is the next most exciting thing to the World Cup, because you get to find out who you're playing and where you're going," Jackman says. "The next leg of your journey starts here.
"You can start organising friendlies and try to emulate as much as possible who's in your pool. It just makes it real all of a sudden.
"And we'll find out who the Football Ferns are playing at Eden Park."
Regarded as one of New Zealand's greatest female footballers, Jackman played at just one World Cup in her international career spanning two decades. When she retired in 2012, at the age of 36, she'd played 50 matches for the Football Ferns, and scored 12 goals (the only player in New Zealand football to score hat-tricks in three consecutive internationals). She'd also spent a year playing professionally in China.
Today, Jackman still keeps incredibly fit, and keeps up a frenetic pace. She's now a mum to seven-year-old Kaea, and lives with her partner, Carolyn, in Auckland.
Having overseen the development of the women's game for New Zealand Football and educated athletes for Drug-Free Sport NZ, Jackman now works as a physiotherapist at Mt Albert Grammar, does football commentary and, as of this week, is an author. Her book, Murdering Middle Age – written with her long-time friend and former Football Fern Michele Cox - is a guide to helping women with "surviving and thriving in midlife".
Jackman, now 47, is both surviving and thriving, with some help from the book project.
"I've learned so much from talking to the women who are in the book," she says. "It's cool because my big drive to do this with Michele was to help people, and in turn we got help; we got some good nuggety stuff back.
"If it can help one person through this, I'd be stoked. My passion is helping people."
Jackman's always had a compassionate streak, especially since her first tour with the Football Ferns to the United States, as a naïve 17-year-old. It was almost her last tour, too.
"I came in at the end of the hierarchical era of the team. I almost quit football on my first tour, because it wasn't what I was expecting from my team-mates," she says. "I was yelled at. My roommate took my blankets and had the air-con cranked up, so I got hardly any sleep. It was the norm back then.
"I swore black and blue if I ever became a senior player, there's no way I would make anyone feel like that."
Jackman ended up captaining the side in two matches, but was always a leader. "Apparently, I was quite intimidating on the field, but I always wanted the young ones to know I wasn't like that off the field," she says. "I was fun and happy-go-lucky - and no way would I make them feel less than who they are. So, I'd like to think I helped bring in change."
She's thankful she stuck with football - a game, she admits, has defined her.
It was her parents' decision to move from Kerikeri to Auckland for their daughter's football career that changed the course of her life. At the time, though, Jackman thought it was for the worst.
"I was so annoyed," she remembers. "I was 15, halfway through fifth form at school and doing really well, and then I had to move to Auckland, change schools and change subjects." She struggled through her two years at Epsom Girls' Grammar – "but my football got really good."
The move came after she was spotted by former All Whites coach Kevin Fallon, looking for players for his Centres of Excellence programme. Jackman was playing in the Far North U15 boys' team, because there were no girls teams then in the north (she knew of no other girl players).
"I tackled [Fallon] from behind and he landed on his butt. He said: 'Whoever that boy is, he can come to my Centre of Excellence'," Jackman recalls. "I had short hair and no boobs and the others said: 'She's a girl'. He said: 'I don't care if she's a girl'. He didn't see gender, just football potential.
"I went to the programme and they were all boys. One asked, 'Are you the fastest boy in your school?' I told them I was a girl, and they never spoke to me for the rest of the week."
But that's where she first met Football Fern mother and daughter legends Barbara and Michele Cox. Michele had just returned from playing professionally in Germany, and Jackman was in awe of her: "I'd never seen another female player outside of TV."
Barbara Cox, coaching the Eden women's side, told Jackman she needed to move to Auckland if she wanted to progress. The rest is history.
In 2013, when Jackman was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to football, she framed the letter from the Governor General, wrapped it in Christmas paper and gave it to her mum. "I attribute my success to Mum and Dad - they started the ball rolling. They are my adoptive parents so I'm really lucky," she says.
As awful as that first tour in 1993 was, it also provided one of her career highlights – her first cap for the Football Ferns against the world champion Canadians. "I went straight from Auckland U19s to international women's football. It was a shock to the system," she says, remembering she was announced as 'Maria Jackson'.
When she played for the Fifa World XI All Stars in Wuhan in 2007, in front of 60,000 people, coach Tina Theune-Meyer of Germany called her 'Farm Girl'.
At training she struggled with "imposter syndrome", but when she took the field at right fullback, she produced one of the best performances of her career. When Theune-Meyer messaged Oceania Football to say Jackman was "a real tournament player", it gave her a huge confidence boost.
The 2007 World Cup was only the second tournament the Football Ferns had qualified for, and they lost all three games in a tough pool. Beaten 5-0 by Brazil, Jackman had to pinch herself – marking arguably the G.O.A.T of women's football, Marta.
Jackman must have impressed, named as one of the best defenders of the World Cup. She was riding a high.
"Then six months later it all came crashing down," she says.
She struggled to get into the New Zealand team, and missed out on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "My personal life was out of control – I was going through a bad break-up with my partner - and that showed up on the field," she says. She was also working on the Fifa U17 Women's World Cup in New Zealand as the competition co-ordinator.
"I couldn't separate the feelings of what I was going through… it still gets to me a bit. I never made the Olympics," she says, choking up.
She got help from a clinical psychologist, Paula Dennan – who features prominently in Murdering Middle Age.
Jackman relates to the plight of former Black Ferns captain, Les Elder, missing selection for the Rugby World Cup being played in Aotearoa right now. She sent Elder a message of support, and they're going to catch up to share their similar stories.
She hopes there will be a positive spinoff from the Rugby World Cup to the Fifa Women's World Cup when the Football Ferns play the tournament opener at Eden Park on July 20, following the opening ceremony. The stadium drew more than 34,000 people for the Black Ferns' first game earlier this month.
"I'm hoping the opener will be just like the first day of the Rugby World Cup, even though it's in winter," says Jackman, an ambassador for the tournament.
"We didn't play at home that often when I was in the team. We played Korea a couple of times on the back paddocks at Lynn-Avon United with your mum, your dad and your dog as the crowd. In 2007, Canada came here and Michele was head of women's football then, and she made us go out to clubs with flyers and drum up a crowd. We managed to get 7000.
"There's something special about knowing your family is in the crowd, and your country is watching you in their backyard. It will definitely lift the Football Ferns no matter who they're playing."