We often talk about football as a global game. As a sport that reaches every corner of the planet. This may be to the eternal benefit of the fans, but for players this can mean uprooting entire lives in pursuit of a successful career. Very few could appreciate this sentiment more than Bayern Munich fullback Ali Riley.
American by birth, Riley has played the vast majority of her domestic football across Europe – all whilst representing New Zealand on the international stage. But when Riley first arrived in Europe it was not because she was entirely ready to leave America, but essentially because she had little other choice.
“When I left it was because the US league folded.” The 31-year-old puts it bluntly: “I wanted to play, I didn’t want to wait and see if the league would come back. I had the 2012 Olympics to prepare for. I couldn’t afford to not have a team.”
Since the move, almost seven years ago, Riley has enjoyed spells in Sweden with LdB FC Malmö (now FC Rosengård), in England with Chelsea, and is currently adapting to German football in the Frauen-Bundesliga. By her own admission, she was “lucky it worked out the way it did.” Despite her success in Europe, however, Riley hopes others aren’t pushed into career choices in the same manner she was.
The catalyst for her movement began after the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league folded in America back in 2012. Riley explains: “That happened to me but that’s something that I hope no other players, or no future generations, have to experience. That’s ultimately what drove me to come here [Europe] and that’s what changed my entire career. And I had to sacrifice a lot. I want there to be more options, and players to be able to make that kind of decision on their own; not to be forced to leave a team, or a city, or a country because of the circumstances.”
Whilst the move to Europe ultimately allowed Riley’s domestic career to flourish, it has had its setbacks. Not on the field so much – after all, Riley is the captain of the New Zealand Football Ferns – but more so, off the field.
“Obviously it’s very far to travel. And with the jetlag, and the FIFA windows being relatively short, it takes a couple days to get there and by the time you’re adjusted…’ She stops herself for a second to rephrase her wording, “well, I don’t even have time to get adjusted to the time difference. In another eight days I’m on my way back, with the jet lag coming back.”
As there is no professional women’s league in New Zealand, it’s common for players to set up new lives overseas aiming for more stability in their careers. But travelling to and from such an isolated country has many drawbacks – notably, financial ones. With funding from New Zealand football dropping off in recent times, that issue has become even more pronounced.
“Maybe after 2012 we were able to get funding because we were in the quarter-final of the Olympics. Because we haven’t done that since, we definitely have less funding. A lot of things have improved but things are also not as good.”
One improvement Riley alludes to, is that New Zealand Football and the New Zealand Professional Footballers’ Association completed their Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2018 to achieve equity and parity for their senior men’s and women’s national teams. Riley is quick to acknowledge the importance of this: “Reaching this equal agreement was a big step. But the situation hasn’t changed in terms of where New Zealand is on the map. What has improved is having more players play professional, but that makes it even harder because players are even more spread out. It’s logistically an even harder situation.”
The 31-year-old candidly accepts that these obstacles could ultimately shorten her international career. “I think, definitely, it is tempting,” she ponders momentarily. However, the pride of captaining her country is not something easily dismissed: “But, particularly for the Football Ferns, we are so proud to represent our country. We would rather continue to play and fight from the inside, not leave. You still have power when you are involved and when you are representing the country you do have that platform as well to try to make a change.”
Keen to elaborate on further obstacles, Riley continues: “I think there are other issues in terms of making sure something is in place for players if you want to start a family and continue with your place in the national team. That’s also an important area where we could have support. You want players to have it all as clear as possible, and again that it’s about choice.”
Despite the many issues that make for a difficult situation, Riley’s optimism holds firm. As much as she hopes future generations aren’t pushed into certain career choices – in the same manner she was – the experienced defender is keen to point out that women’s football has come a long way over the past decade: “When I moved to Sweden, you know, we didn’t have Instagram. You couldn’t watch female football on TV. Now there’s an app for the Swedish league where you can watch all the games. You can watch the English Super League games for free!”
The changes undergone in the women’s game since the WPS league folded at the start of the decade are near enough tangible. But now in her debut season at Bayern Munich, still captain of the Football Ferns, Riley’s drive for success and support for the game undoubtedly remains just the same.