Football Connect: Football Foundation helps bring kids into football with Youthtown NZ.

A diverse range of objects are scattered across Papakura City Football Club’s McLennan Park. There are balloons and swiss balls, pool noodles and drink bottles, and a pile of brightly coloured footballs all the way from UEFA in Switzerland.

These are the tools of the trade for Football Connect. Pool noodles are wielded by laughing kids, chasing each other across the expanse of the pitch. At the start of the year, these young footballers didn’t know each other at all. At the Football Connect holiday programme, held over three days in partnership with Papakura City and Auckland United football clubs, they have formed a tight-knit community.

The project is run as partnership between the New Zealand Football Foundation, Youthtown and the local partner clubs. The idea is simple, and effective: take football – the global game, needing only some space and a ball – and use it as a basis for community-building and life-skill learning for young people from socioeconomic backgrounds that might otherwise have been barriers to the sport.

Many New Zealanders see Saturday morning sport as a rite of passage. It’s a routine we easily fall into: early morning wake ups, drives across sprawling cityscapes to a frosty field, oranges at half time, boots off, coat on, back home. The benefits of youth sport are well known. Children learn skills on and off the field, developing their coordination and communication, all while building life-long friendships with people beyond their everyday circles.

But there are many steps in this Saturday morning ritual that aren’t accessible for everyone. For many families, finding time and resources to journey to the matches, provide the uniform required, and commit to games and trainings across the city several times a week is a challenge. All you need for football is a ball and a space, in theory. In reality you need access, and equipment, and transport. And that’s where the New Zealand Football Foundation and Youthtown step in.

Warm ups get underway. Image: Youthtown

Piloted in a pandemic-disrupted 2020, the Football Connect programme has taken its fully-fledged form over the course of 2021. During term time, children attend training once a week at Auckland United in the central suburbs, or Papakura City in South Auckland. During the holidays, they attend a programme where life skills and football skills are woven together for three days that are ultimately all about having fun. Some of the children are also involved in teams with the host clubs, beginning to access the world of Saturday morning sport for the first time. Chief Executive of the New Zealand Football Foundation Dr Michele Cox explains that the organisation aims to remove all barriers for young athletes: fees are paid, equipment is provided, and the Foundation works closely with Youthtown and clubs to ensure that the delivery of the sport itself is as accessible as it can be.

The football is only one face of the programme, but participants do not lack for good coaching. Former Football Ferns striker Amber Hearn, who played in the women’s Bundesliga and scored 54 goals for New Zealand, has been involved with the programme from the start. She laughs when asked if the kids have any idea about her illustrious playing career. None at all, she says, “we’re just here to have fun”. Brandishing a pool noodle of her own during a competitive game of tag, she yells encouragement as one young footballer, the last to have evaded all the taggers, sprints around the perimeter of the field. Fun is definitely the order of the day.

For Hearn, a stalwart of the highest levels of football in the country, the most rewarding part of the programme is watching young people with no experience kicking a ball forge new connections through the sport. When the programme’s participants first arrived, she recalls, they were strangers. Now, they’re friends, a little community.

It’s a community continuously learning. For the young athletes, there are many new skills to be acquired. Coach Mahalia grins with pride as she recalls how much the players have improved since they started the programme, and how any lingering nerves soon melted away. No one hovers on the sidelines at McLennan Park, everyone is involved. Hearn notes one boy, fully kitted up in his Saturday Papakura City uniform, who has become particularly good with a ball at his feet, despite never having kicked one in his life before he started out with Football Connect. “That’s the really fulfilling stuff, seeing that”.

The coaches get involved on a picturesque day in Papakura. Image: Youthtown.

But the learning isn’t just for the kids. The Foundation and Youthtown are working constantly to keep identifying and addressing barriers to the sport. Recently, they have begun working with the Halberg Foundation to ensure young people with disabilities or neurodivergence can also be involved. And Michele says YouthTown are in regular communication with parents and families to make sure the programme is responsive to need in the community.

It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach, embodying the best of the grass roots game here. At one point, as her fellow coaches lead their charges through a boisterous football-based skill challenge, Hearn ducks into the club rooms. “I have to go cut onions”, she says. Literally. She is preparing the barbecue for lunch.

The grass roots clubs have been integral to the project. “[Papakura City] are brilliant” Hearn says. “We’re really tight. They keep us in the loop with everything”. From providing fields to facilities to teams for kids to play on, Football Connect really is all about connection. After a year of isolation and social distance, it is a chance for communities within and outside football to come together on the pitch to serve their local families – one pair of boots, one football imported from Switzerland, one pool noodle, at a time.