Goal Click and #WePlayStrong teamed up for a collaboration to tell the inside story of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, from the personal perspective of the players. Ali Riley (Chelsea and New Zealand) documented her football life during the knockout stages of the UWCL.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your football life?
I am Ali Riley and I play for Chelsea women and the New Zealand national team. We are currently in preparation for the World Cup. I am a left back and 31 years old. This will be my 4th World Cup. I started playing for the national team in 2007 and started playing professionally in 2010 after graduating from Stanford. I played for two years in the American professional league before heading over to Sweden and playing for FC Rosengård for six and a half seasons, before joining Chelsea last summer.
What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with any of the photos?
Some photos are from Chelsea, especially our preparation and trip to Paris for the Champions League quarterfinal playing against PSG, and a Cup game in Durham. I wanted to show the locker room, the gym, and what daily life is like. Both the glamour side - especially at an amazing club like Chelsea where we have such good resources, are able to have the best fields and we are taken care of really well - and then you also get to see the other side where the facilities when we play other teams are not that great. It's not like the whole league and every league and every country is at the highest level yet. We're still fighting for equality and fighting to be treated fairly compared to the men's game.
Then I also showed the New Zealand team from our trip to Spain when we played against Norway. We were a little bit isolated where we were staying. There is a picture of Betsy Hassett when she was painting her nails. Obviously a lot of us had been playing in winter. Betsy plays in Iceland. Everyone was so happy to see the sun, especially her, and she was living in the room next door and she would always be outside. Listening to music or playing board games, card games or painting her nails. She looked so happy, the sun is shining and we were staying at this beautiful resort on the beach in Marbella.
We beat Norway a couple days after that photo was taken. That was one of our best results we have had in four years - to beat a team ranked higher than us. And that was a huge source of belief and confidence for us going into the World Cup.
I wanted to spontaneously capture some of the moments that define the life of a professional female football player. Sometimes it is glamorous, as you can see with our stunning training pitch at the Chelsea training ground. But then sometimes, when you see other team facilities and how men’s teams travel, you realise how far the women’s game still has to go. It is a constant emotional rollercoaster, celebrating our progress but fighting for more.
What is your favourite photo? Why?
I like the ones on the plane, because we were not able to charter a private plane for the Champions League. It highlights the differences between the men and the women, between flying private and commercial. I really like the two pictures, both looking up the stairs and then down. One is Anita Asante and Hedvig Lindahl. The other is Sophie Ingle and Bethany England. We all crammed in getting on the plane heading over. I had never been past the quarterfinals in the Champions League. So this was a big trip for me and really exciting.
What are the biggest changes happening at the moment in women's football?
The biggest change is probably the media coverage of women's football. That affects everything because when people can see women playing I think they are impressed with us. They appreciate the game more, they have respect for what we do, and that encourages funding, sponsors, fans, and people to want to come see a game live. Little girls can have female role models and more little girls can play, which increases the competition in the game, which increases the level and then makes the game grow globally, which is what we are seeing happening. I think the media coverage has a lot to do with that.
What has been your football journey up until now?
The biggest sacrifice I’ve made for football was moving overseas, leaving first California. When I played in the WPS, I was drafted to a team in northern California, so it was close to my friends at Stanford, I was able to stay in school, and it wasn’t very far from my family. When that team folded I had to head over to New York. That was pretty far from everyone from home. When the league folded I headed over to Europe. So I left my friends and family behind, I was in a relationship at the time, giving that up to follow my dream of playing football and playing professionally.
Some of the hardest times have been injuries, not getting playing time. We don’t earn a lot of money, so we play the game because we love it so much and are so passionate. It is tough when things don’t go your way. We have had some big losses on the New Zealand national team. Not winning a game at the World Cup yet, and not making it out of the group stage. Our best result was in the 2012 Olympics when we made it out of the group to the quarterfinals and then lost to the USA. We’ve definitely struggled with results over the years. To keep fighting and keep believing is always a challenge.
What are the opportunities for female footballers in New Zealand?
We see ourselves as pioneers. It's definitely a big difference from when I grew up in in the US in Los Angeles. The 1999 World Cup was a huge moment for women's soccer in the United States. We are hoping that even if it's not winning the World Cup, if we win a game and become the first senior national team to win a game in a World Cup, if with that win and another good result we can get out of the group, we would boost women's football and women's sport in New Zealand so much. That hasn't that hasn't really happened yet, at least not in football. So that is one of our really big goals and we feel a big sense of pride to have this opportunity to do that and to make that change. The future of NZ football would be definitely helped by a good result at the World Cup. So that's really something driving us forward.
What does football mean to you? Do you have a message for the next generation of young female footballers?
For me football is obviously something I love to do as an activity, but at the same time especially at this point in my career, I have a really big sense of responsibility to inspire the next generations. Not only Inspire them, but make sure that their opportunities are greater than they were when I was growing up, and that they have a better experience, that they experience more equality than I have.
By being outspoken in the media and by sharing my experience through my podcast, through social media, through working with Goal Click and COPA90, I see it as a great opportunity to inspire young girls and show them that it is possible to follow your dream if you want to play professional football if you want to represent your country at a World Cup. That any little girl out there can overcome challenges. That being a woman is awesome and that we can do anything we want as long as we work together and fight for what we believe in.
What do you expect to change after the 2019 WWC?
If we do well there will be a huge boost in the media coverage and the status of women's football in New Zealand. I think all over the world the same thing will happen. It will be at different levels in different countries. Depending on the team who wins, that country will obviously see a huge surge in interest. We have already seen that in countries after the Euros.
In England the whole country is getting behind those girls and with the Euros coming up in England, there will just be more and more interest in women's football and hopefully that means more opportunities, better pay, better conditions. And a better future for any little girl who dreams of playing football.