Real Life

Football’s dynamic duo Barbara and Michele are scoring points for women

Their game plan is simple: work hard to achieve gender equality in sport
Tony Nyberg

Barbara and Michele Cox are fighters. The Auckland-based mother and daughter are pioneers of women’s soccer and champions of women’s rights in what has often been regarded as a male sport.

Living with Michele’s dog – boisterous spanador Archie – in the house the family has owned since 1975, the pair attend events and fixtures, campaigning for females to have similar rights and pay cheques to men.

“Although many cultures live intergenerationally, I get grief living back at home with my mother,” says Michele, 55, who spent a decade in Switzerland before returning to New Zealand in 2017. “But it makes sense – we are both single and someone is always home.

“Mum is on one side of the house, while I live and work on the other, and Archie runs between us according to whoever’s home or has food. It’s a great arrangement – she likes gardening and hates cooking, while I love cooking and hate gardening!”

The Cox name is synonymous with New Zealand women’s football – nait has appeared on most team sheets over 25 years of Football Ferns history. Barbara was our first women’s football team captain, while siblings Michele and Tara, 25, made careers as NZ internationals. Michele was chief executive of the New Zealand Football Foundation and when working for FIFA VP of Asia – Prince Ali bin Al Hussein’s football foundation – she successfully campaigned for women to be allowed to play the game wearing hijab (head coverings).

In 1987, Football Ferns Barbara and Michele became the first mother/daughter pair in the world to be in a national team.

Michele has recently been appointed head of a joint project for the Oceania Olympic Committee – for more than 20 countries including NZ, Australia, Guam and the Pacific Islands – UN Women, and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Australia. She will promote gender equality, inclusion and prevention of violence through sport-based programmes.

Barbara grew up in the Waikato locality of Tamahere, where sport options were limited and girls were expected to play netball. “My mother was horrified to watch my games because I was always whistled up for being ‘rough’ and laddering my stockings,” she recalls.

Once she discovered the joys of the “beautiful game” in her mid-twenties, she never looked back. “When I played my first football game, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can run the whole length of the field, I can tackle people, I can slide tackle and I can head the ball if I remember to keep my eyes open!'” says Barbara, who joined her first team in 1973, one of the first women in the country to do so.

Michele vividly recalls playing in the mud on the sidelines at Auckland’s Eden Football Club as a child. “We were a football family – we’d watch everything from Tottenham Hotspur to national league games and women’s representative matches,” says Michele, who started playing aged five in an all-boys team, progressing to Germany’s top team at 19. “It was fantastic – we’d run around freely without anyone looking after us. As a football community, we had an unbreakable bond.”

Says Barbara, who at 76 is fitter than many women half her age, “My husband Roy would supervise the canteen and I’d sit in the press box next to [Chelsea, England and NZ footballer] Ken Armstrong because I wanted to learn about football. I’d park the car at the clubrooms at functions, and the children would play with the other kids and go to sleep in the car at about 9pm.

“There were a lot of women involved in football through husbands or boyfriends. In the ’70s, there was a lot of stuff in the paper about equality and we’d think, ‘If men can play it, so can we.'” Two years after her first match, Barbara captained NZ’s first women’s football team to victory in 1975.

Good sport Michele in Cambodia for FIFA 2.

Roy, a coach, administrator and former footballer with British club Queens Park Rangers, was also an early driving force behind women’s football. He helped establish the New Zealand Women’s Football Association, playing an integral part in the sport’s development. Barbara played for NZ for 12 years, retiring in 1987 at 40 after captaining the first Football Ferns team to its best result.

Michele followed in her mum’s footsteps, representing our country 20 times between 1987 and 1998, before becoming an international consultant for FIFA. Barbara and Michele made history in 1987 as the first mother/daughter pair to play together in the Women’s World Invitational Tournament in Taiwan.

“Mum picked up women’s football when it was a novelty and wasn’t treated seriously, and at a time when many people – men and women – didn’t think women should play,” tells Michele, who says she still encounters obstacles today. “I had the perfect role model of persistence and resilience. Mum provided a very close-to-home example of how to pursue and stand up for something you love, even if it goes against the grain.”

However, there’s one thing the pair will never agree on.

“Just don’t ask us to drive in the same car together,” laughs Michele. “That invariably ends up in a fight – and potentially a mother/daughter divorce!”

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