The men’s side are top of the A-League and in surprisingly scintillating form, while the women’s side are knocking on the door of the playoffs for the first time. This is your boarding call for Aotearoa’s next big sporting bandwagon.
On Sunday night I watched the match between the Wellington Phoenix men’s team and the Perth Glory, dubbed the “distance derby” because of the astonishing 5,225 kilometres between the two cities. Near the end of the first half, a deluge came on. In my mind’s eye, I flashed back through years of Phoenix fandom to the sound of the rain and that bit of piano music from Interstellar.
- Buying an extremely unflattering Phoenix jersey sized Youth XL (they’re much cheaper!) as an act of exaltation to the city of Wellington after what felt like an especially good trip to the windy city. Ricki Herbert takes the team to the semi-finals and I no longer fit the jersey by the end of the season.
- Going to my first live match at the behest of Joseph Moore (the Spike Lee of Wellington Phoenix fandom) wearing a borrowed bit of kit: an officially licensed Phoenix basketball singlet. 2-1 to the Nix at Eden Park.
- Making a pilgrimage down to Wellington with a group of friends to see the team’s first game back in New Zealand post-Covid. The Yellow Fever wave a banner that says “HOME AGAIN”. I’m in the toilet when a camera person takes a picture of my group of friends that makes the news.
- One of my young students asking me what my “N-I-X” tattoo means in the middle of a lesson. When I gave him the answer, he told me I should have got a Cristiano Ronaldo tattoo instead and hit an energetic, seated “Siu!”
- It’s an overcast afternoon in Hoon Hay and I’m wearing my Phoenix cap while watching the reserve team get battered by Ōtautahi’s football behemoth Cashmere Technical. At halftime, a man mocks me while I wait for a cheese roll in the cafe. “Nice hat.”
- I fly up to Auckland for a double-header and sing in public with reckless abandon, “Ma-riana Speck-mai-er” to the tune of a Kings of Leon song. The docile crowd doing their best to make Mount Smart appear half-full don’t join in. The Phoenix win both games.
I’m not a Wellingtonian, but I love the Phoenix. This year marks a decade of Phoenix fandom for me. I mark that from the first time I went to see them play. Back then, I didn’t understand the offside law, but I dutifully took my shirt off at the 80-minute mark because I was “supposed to”. Growing up in Ōtautahi, it was difficult to not become indoctrinated into the view that soccer was for lesser beings. It wasn’t until I moved to Auckland that I was seduced by the allures of the round ball.
Why the Phoenix? I don’t know. It helped having friends who I admired who were proper die-hard supporters. The annual Phoenix matches at Eden Park soon became regular trips to Kiwitea street to watch Auckland City (I know you’re not supposed to like both teams!). Eventually it all led to me getting told off for having to make difficult decisions around which kits to sell because they were spilling out their large, dedicated drawer.
Back in the present I’m sitting alone in the dark, desperately strangling back a violent and joyous outburst because the Nix have scored the winner, but it’s nearly midnight and my wife is sleeping in the other room.
In this particular game, the Phoenix men took the lead and held it like one of those rubber tubes filled with water. Even for the A-League, where goals often come from inexplicable spots, this match was wild. The Phoenix took and lost the lead over and over and it looked like a 3-3 draw was going to be the story. Enter contract-year Kosta Barbarouses. The 33-year-old started his professional career as a teenager with the Phoenix the year the club was founded. Despite a 63 rating on Fifa that doesn’t warrant a “real face”, Barbarouses reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out the winner. My Phoenix-centric Discord server lost its shit.
Coming into this season, there wasn’t a very optimistic feeling about the Phoenix. The women’s squad had finished their campaign with the wooden spoon for the second season running. They’d also said goodbye to some key players, including teenage genius and Football Fern Milly Clegg, their top goal-scorer for the previous season. The men’s team lost key squad members like Clayton Lewis and their star goalkeeper Oli Sail. Ufuk Talay, their acclaimed manager who led the team to back-to-back finals series, departed for Sydney FC, a rival with deep pockets. Talay was replaced by Giancarlo “Chiefy” Italiano, previously an assistant coach known to be beloved by the players but unproven as a manager. The primary source of optimism was the continued presence of Polish striker Oskar Zawada, a towering goal machine known by some as the “Kiwi Zlatan” despite his nationality.
Surprisingly, both teams have bucked expectations. Things feel good. The Phoenix women, while currently mired in a run of bad form, started their season strong and look hugely improved from their previous efforts. Academy product Macey Fraser has looked very impressive and new import, Venezuelan international Mariana Speckmaier, is giving opposition defences all kinds of problems.Their core of players who also suit up for the Football Ferns have them sitting mid-table with room to rise if they can convert a few more of the chances they’ve been creating.
The men are doing even better. In fact, they’re top of the A-League, and on track for their best finish ever. There’s a lot to love about this team. Barbarouses seems to have tapped into a vein of sublime football witchcraft. Honestly, I want to cry just thinking about him. Then there’s Alex Rufer, the talismanic presence blessed/cursed with the most famous name in New Zealand football (he’s the nephew of Wynton Rufer). He played over 100 games for the team before he scored his first goal.
Alex Paulsen, the 21-year-old goalkeeper, has slipped into the very large gloves of All White Oli Sail, but is saving penalties for fun. The rest of the squad are stepping up too. Hungarian playmaker Bozhidar Kraev and Auckland City product Tim Payne have both been regularly producing flashes of brilliance. Add to that the fact that Oskar Zawada should be returning from injury soon and you’ve got an undeniably sunny outlook for the remainder of the season. Right now, you can’t beat the Wellington Phoenix on a good day.
As we near the halfway point of the season, it feels like the perfect time to jump on the bandwagon – even if you’ve never watched a Nix game in your life. The Phoenix are at top of the table and in scintillating form. Next season, an American billionaire is set to place his thumb on the scales of domestic football fandom in Aotearoa with a new Auckland-based team and the Phoenix-as-plucky-underdogs narrative is only going to get pluckier.
Last year the Warriors showed the viral possibilities of the nation getting behind one of our franchises. In 2024 it’s football’s turn. The World Cup gave local enthusiasts a glimpse of a world where the beautiful game reigns in Aotearoa, and the Phoenix feel like they’ve taken that vision and stapled it to the mood board in their dressing room. “Come on you Nix” is tomorrow’s “Up the Wahs”. Now’s the time to staple the yellow and black to your football mast. Best of all, getting on board now means you can say that you were saying “Come on you Nix!” before brands and politicians co-opt it for clout.