Football can become No.1 sport in New Zealand, says FIFA president Gianni Infantino

FIFA president Gianni Infantino says football can become the No.1 sport in New Zealand, as well as the Oceania region ahead of next year's Women's World Cup.

According to the New Zealand Secondary School Sports Council's 2021 census, football at high school level had 20,787 participants in the 2021 school year, making it the fifth most popular code in Aotearoa at that level.

Those numbers see football ahead of sports like hockey (13,665), athletics (10,005), cricket (9,276) and rowing (4,268) for the same period.

All Whites head coach Danny Hay with Ben Waine.
All Whites head coach Danny Hay with Ben Waine. Photo credit: Image - Photosport

And while football's figure came amid a 17 percent drop from 2017 to 2021, New Zealand's traditional powerhouse of rugby union dropped 29 percent down to 24,299 players at secondary school level in the same period.

Netball and basketball are the sports with the biggest numbers at secondary level, with 26,146 and 24,850 participants respectively.

At all levels, participation among girls and women stands at 20,221, and increase of 12 percent from 2020.

For FIFA president Infantino, the growth of football in New Zealand - and Oceania as a whole - gives him confidence that the game can continue to develop.

"It has improved greatly," Infantino told Newshub. "Football is becoming the No.1 sport in Oceania, overcoming, of course, rugby as well.

"This is thanks to a lot of hard work, a lot of investment in New Zealand, with [OFC Council member] Johanna [Wood] and her team, and the whole of Oceania with OFC.

"Many players are playing abroad in Europe, in important competitions in important clubs. This always helps in the development of football.

"Of course with COVID, everyone had a tough time. But we are back, Oceania is back."

At professional level, more Kiwi men's and women's players are winning opportunities to base themselves overseas.

Of the 26 players selected for the All Whites' FIFA intercontinental playoff against Costa Rica, 17 plied their trade outside of Australia and New Zealand's A-League, while two were free agents after leaving clubs in England (Winston Reid) and Turkey (Joe Champness).

New Zealand and Australia will co-host the 2023 Women's Football World Cup.
New Zealand and Australia will co-host the 2023 Women's Football World Cup. Photo credit: Image - Photosport

And of the 24 players in the Football Ferns' last squad, a further 11 were contracted to foreign clubs, with four free agents.

The development of the game to see more Kiwis playing in overseas leagues as overseas professionals will have an obvious impact on the game at home, as well as generate more exposure within New Zealand. 

Aiding Infantino's ambition, is the fact New Zealand - along with Australia - will host the Women's Football World Cup in 2023.

As the final of three global tournaments hosted in Aotearoa, after cricket and rugby in 2022, the Women's Football World Cup will be among the biggest - in terms of global viewership - to ever take place in New Zealand.

The 2019 tournament drew in a total of over one billion viewers across all platforms, with 260 million tuning in for the final match. Those figures were double that of the previous tournament, held in 2015.

Globally, that number dwarfs World Rugby's figures for its 2019 World Cup, standing at 857 million viewers, while England Netball says 6.07 million people watched or attended the Netball World Cup in the same year. 

And Infantino continues to say the scale of the tournament to be held in New Zealand might be lost on the average Kiwi. 

"It's a huge deal," he added. "I'm not sure New Zealand and Australia realise what is going to happen to them next year.

"It will be massive. It will be great. The world will focus on New Zealand and Australia for the Women's World Cup.

"At the last Women's World Cup in France, we had 1.2 billion viewers. It's incredible.

"After the men's World Cup, it's the biggest sporting event, all sports included. It will be big.

"Women's football is a fantastic sport, and people have realised that now - it was about time.

"There are some great stars, great players, great teams participating. The world will be watching, the world will be coming. We are looking forward to coming there, to the opening game in Auckland.

"It will be fantastic."

Beginning in August 2023, New Zealand will host 29 of the 64 matches played at the Women's Football World Cup, including the tournament opener, two quarter-finals and a semi-final.