Football Fern Katie Bowen’s bittersweet homecoming

Playing in New Zealand will be bittersweet for the sporting superstar

It will be an unforgettable moment – running out onto Eden Park’s hallowed turf for the opening game of the Fifa Women’s World Cup, playing in front of family and friends for the very first time.

But it’ll be a bittersweet one for Football Ferns legend Katie Bowen, 29, who will be thinking of just one person who won’t be amid the throng of soccer fans in the stands – her dad and biggest supporter Dave, who passed away in 2017.

“He was my footballing guy – my best friend,” Katie tells Woman’s Day. “I actually didn’t even know if I wanted to continue playing after that. It was my biggest hurdle – I didn’t know if this was the path for me any more and if not, what the heck was I going to do?

“But in the end, football got me through a dark time and really helped me through the grieving process – and it’s in my blood. I can’t thank football enough, really.

Katie with her biggest supporter, her dad Dave.

“And what a legacy for my dad – that first game will probably have me quite emotional, but I know that he’ll be with me every step of the way on the field and I’ll feel him in the stands. It sounds kind of corny, but it’s really cool that it’s a home World Cup and I’ll be able to feel him with me.”

Ever since she was old enough to kick a ball, Katie and her football-mad family were obsessed with the beautiful game, stemming from Englishman Dave’s love of Manchester United.

“We’re such a competitive family, so me and my three siblings were always playing two-on-two,” she tells. “We were either playing or football was always on TV. From such a young age, I knew I wanted to do this professionally and I wasn’t going to stop until I did.”

Determined to become a pro footballer, Katie quickly rose up the club ranks – despite the fact she was always the only girl in her team for about 10 years.

“At the time, I didn’t think about it too much – I was just like, ‘I hope the boys pass it to me!’ – but this is why having a home World Cup means so much. We want to encourage girls to play the game. There’s been a bit of a drop-off in participation numbers, which is disappointing, and I know the best decision I ever made was to play football.”

Katie’s talents eventually took her to university in the US – specifically North Carolina, where women’s soccer is absolutely booming. But the move away from her very tight-knit family was really tough, she tells.

“Oh, goodness, I was such a fish out of water when I got there!” she laughs. “It was a really, really big move for me and it took a bit to get my head around it all. It’s so different – people are so passionate about college sport. Everyone’s walking around in college gear. You don’t see people in New Zealand walking around decked out in AUT merch, you know?

“And the resources they have – it’s wild! But on the flipside of that, and this is pretty stock standard for all New Zealanders, is that it really keeps you humble. In the States, it’s all, ‘Oh, you don’t have this?’ whereas a Kiwi comes in and is like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you have this?!'”

Now a veteran in the Football Ferns at the tender age of 29, with four World Cups and an Olympic Games under her belt, Katie is thrilled with how women’s soccer has come leaps and bounds since she first debuted for New Zealand on her 14th birthday – and now the beautiful game gets to be played in the most beautiful country, Aotearoa!

Let’s hear it for the girls! From left: Hannah Wilkinson, Rebekah Stott, Katie,CJ Bott and Ali Riley.

“I’ve never played in a World Cup game where my house is 30 minutes away from the ground,” she says with a smile. “To know that all my family will be there – the siblings, the nieces and nephews – will be incredible. I’m even getting messages from people I went to school with that I haven’t spoken to in years wishing me luck!

“This is the biggest event in women’s sport – and it’s great that New Zealand is getting so excited about it.

“I think it has been under-played slightly. I don’t know if Kiwis will know what’s about to hit them! It’ll be something to tell the grandkids about.”

Laughing, Katie adds, “Well, I say that but at this stage, I am still single and no babies. I’m so far off telling the grandkids anything, it’s unbelievable! Maybe you can put an ad out in Woman’s Day for me!”

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