Limitoo News

How a London bus driver and an accountant became NZ trailblazers at Football World Cup

Maureen Jacobson, far left, who played for NZ at Football World Cup
Maureen Jacobson, far left, with some of her New Zealand team-mates at the first Women's World Cup. Photo: BBC screenshot

In 1991, ex-Millwall Lionesses Maureen Jacobson and Kim Nye stepped out in the white shirts and black shorts of New Zealand to face some of the best footballers of their generation at the inaugural Women's World Cup.

Jacobson had not long since tasted FA Cup glory in England; former London bus driver Nye had emigrated to New Zealand only a few years earlier.

Head coach Dave Boardman's squad - the oldest in the 12-nation tournament - included a teacher, a computer programmer, a secretary and a gardener.

Together they were paving the way for future generations, and when Nye squeezed the ball past hosts China to record the Kiwis' first-ever goal in the competition, they were euphoric.

"For us it was like we'd won the World Cup," 62-year-old Nye told BBC Sport from Wellington, her adopted home of the past 35 years. "That game especially was a lifetime memory for me."

Jacobson grew up playing football for the same North Wellington boys' club as her two older brothers, debuting for their women's side at 13 and catching the eye of national team scouts while playing for her region.

"I had no idea what was happening outside New Zealand," the 61-year-old chartered accountant said. "I just loved the game."

Going on to earn 60 caps for her national team, Jacobson played at a time when the sport in her homeland was run on a shoestring by an amateur women's association.

"It was all men's hand-me-downs, and you might have been lucky to get a tracksuit, but you had to hand it back," she said. "It was a small, hardworking number of people that were passionate about women's football and trying to get it developed."

In 1986, Jacobson and her friend Pauline Sullivan moved to London on working visas, and after turning up to training at Millwall one night, both were snapped up by the amateur club.

Athletic and technically gifted, Jacobson fitted easily into a midfield that included future England manager Hope Powell, and 25-year-old Nye.

Born and raised in south-west London, Nye got a taste for football playing alongside boys in her dad's cub scouts team.

She joined her first women's side, Ashford Wanderers, at 14 and by 17 she was a Millwall Lioness.

The arrival of the two Kiwis at Millwall would, however, change her life, because when Sullivan moved back to New Zealand in 1988, Nye - her friend and team-mate - joined her.

A double-decker bus driver living in Catford at the time, Nye thought she was going on a year-long "bit of a trip". Within a day, she was pulling on her boots for Wellington's Porirua Viard.

"It was pretty similar to England," she recalled. "We had to put our own nets up and play on grotty old fields."

But Nye loved life in New Zealand and applied to stay, her mind made up after national team head coach Boardman saw her play and suggested she might have a shot at making his squad if she got her citizenship.

"If I'd worked hard enough in England I may have got in the England team, but in those days I didn't do a lot of training," Nye said. "I worked my socks off over here [in New Zealand]. I saw the opportunities and that made me jump at it."

Jacobson, meanwhile, had enjoyed a title-winning summer in Finland with HJK, playing on with Millwall before bowing out with their 1991 FA Cup triumph over Doncaster Belles and and going on to join Petone FC in Lower Hutt.

That November, the two former Lionesses stepped off the plane together in China, both overcoming injury in time to make World Cup history with New Zealand.

Maureen Jacobson, centre, and Kim Nye
Maureen Jacobson, centre, and Kim Nye on the right, during a warmup match for their adopted country, before the 1991 World Cup. Photo: BBC screenshot

"I remember us all being excited to be in the first Women's World Cup," Jacobson said. "It was a major feat."

Once in China, her flight paid through sponsorship, 30-year-old Nye was in awe.

"You just felt like you were in another world," she said. "Our five-star hotel was wonderful and we went to the opening ceremony which was all bells and whistles."

Some of the New Zealand team even got to rub shoulders with Brazil legend Pele, who was at the tournament as a guest.

"That was pretty cool," Jacobson said. "We got our photo taken with him; he had lots of people milling around him."

Maureen Jacobson, far left, in China with Pele
Maureen Jacobson, far left, was among players who met football legend Pele who also attended the World Cup. Photo: BBC screenshot

For all their own star treatment, the Kiwis were one of the underdogs on this world stage.

"The women's association managed to get funding from the government, probably for the first time, and we got support for nutrition and some training camps," Jacobson said.

"But when you saw how some of the other teams were supported and had a much bigger number of staff, we were on the bare bones."

Playing in front of 14,000 roaring fans in Guangzhou, New Zealand battled against recent European semi-finalists Denmark, but three first-half goals proved too great a mountain to climb.

Two days later, eventual runners-up Norway blitzed the haka-performing Kiwis, Julia Campbell unfortunately netting the competition's first own goal in a 4-0 loss.

Nye made a more welcome mark in the history books in the final group game, the makeshift defender silencing thousands of China fans inside Foshan's New Plaza Stadium with New Zealand's first Women's World Cup goal.

"When the ball came over I thought I'll never get there with my head and I was trying to slide my leg out and I've almost gone down on my bum," she recalled. "And because I was so close to the post I thought 'has it gone in?'"

It had, and though it was only a consolation, Jacobson was among those making a beeline to congratulate their air-punching goalscorer.

It would be another 16 years before New Zealand played in the finals again, and they remain winless on the world stage.

Thirty-two years after their adventures Jacobson and Nye keep in touch through Facebook, and hope New Zealand co-hosting the 2023 tournament will give their players a boost.

"People know about it - you are having that conversation with colleagues, friends and family," Jacobson said.

"I really hope people go and watch and see how good the women's game actually is."


This story was first published by the BBC