Football Ferns veterans Ali Riley, Ria Percival recognised in 2024 New Year Honours list

  • 30/12/2023

Football Ferns Ali Riley and Ria Percival have been recognised for their contributions to the sport in New Zealand with inclusion on the 2024 New Year Honour list.

On Saturday, the veterans were named Members of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to football.

American-born Riley - whose father is an economics professor from Christchurch - has represented New Zealand across five World Cups and four Olympic Games en route to becoming just the second NZ player to make 150 appearances, dating back to her debut in 2007 as a 21-year-old fresh from Stanford University.

She captained the Football Ferns during their World Cup campaign on home soil earlier this year, leading the side to their first ever win at the tournament against Norway in the opener at Eden Park. 

Riley says she was taken by complete surprise when she received the email regarding her nomination, which she initially dismissed as spam.

After reading through the fine print, she admits the plaudit left her "astounded".

Ali Riley and Ria Percival of New Zealand celebrate after the team's famous win over Norway at the World Cup.
Ali Riley and Ria Percival of New Zealand celebrate after the team's famous win over Norway at the World Cup. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I had no idea that it was something I could even get," Riley told Newshub.

Riley has been an outspoken advocate for women's equity in football globally. She was central in efforts that secured improved conditions and prize money for players at the World Cup, leading a player engagement project involving 150 players from 25 national teams, the largest collective action undertaken by women’s footballers. 

Riley and Percival were among a group of women's football players and administrators recognised in the 2024 Honours, which also included FIFA chief women's football officer Dame Sarai Bareman and Dr Johanna Wood.

While she's proud of the accomplishment on a personal level, Riley says the recognition for the wider team involved in the hugely successful World Cup and its contribution to the growth of women's football worldwide was equally gratifying.

In total, 1,978,274 spectators reached 64 matches to become the most attended women's sports event in history, beating the attendance of the last World Cup hosted by France (which attracted 1,131,312 spectators across 52 matches).

"Of course we're so proud, my family and for me personally, but I just see us as symbols of what is possible and the changes that is going on in the women's game," Riley said.  

"Just the efforts we put in – not just us but everyone we've worked with, everyone who has supported us to grow the game, to push for change and try to make things better for the next generation – to inspire people.

"Being recognised isn't the motivation but it is really cool. It is special to be celebrated for these efforts."

Joining Riley atop the list for most NZ appearances is midfielder Ria Percival, who sits at No.1 with 166 caps to her name.

English-born Percival - who plays for London heavyweights Tottenham Hotspur in the Women's Super League - made her debut for New Zealand in 2006 and co-captained the side alongside Riley during the World Cup in July. 

And like Riley, the honour came as a complete surprise to the 34-year-old. 

"I remember getting the email when I was at training, and thinking it was spam," she told Newshub.

"It was a bit of a shock. The more it's sunk in, it gives you the time to reflect and really take it all in and be proud of it.

"It's something you can't really put into words. Being with the national team for around 17 years now, I've been there for a while, been through a lot with the team. We've achieved a lot as well over the years.

"To get this honour is really humbling. It's just a great achievement."

What's more, sharing the honour with Riley after the pair's years of service on the field makes her place on the New Year's list makes the achievement all the more special for Percival.

"We both bring two different things. We've both worked for so many years together, we've come through different paths and played in so many different countries.

"When we come together with the national team, it's us two having the connection to help the team, develop the team and show our way of leadership.

"Ali's one that leads with her voice, I'm more with my actions. Me and Ali both have worked together for so many years, it's nice to share this moment and see what we've achieved together."