Island Fútbol

The fans and their vibrant celebrations have embodied the "Latin American spirit" of Waiheke AFC. Image: Michael Andrew

Island Fútbol

Far from home, the Latin American football fanatics of Waiheke Island are fighting to regain their place on the New Zealand football league. It’s a tale of passion, pride and love for the beautiful game, writes Michael Andrew.

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For the first 10 minutes of the walk the loudest sound is tūī song. Then you hear the drums. They’re quiet at first, but with each step onward they grow louder, more raucous and rhythmic, the triple beat like an old train chugging away across the valley.

It’s a strange sound for this place. It’s too boisterous and energetic for New Zealand, let alone a sparsely populated island in the Hauraki Gulf. It’s the sound of Rio de Janeiro, of Santiago, of the Carnival and the fiesta. For an entire continent it is the sound of football.

And yet on a Saturday morning, at the Onetangi sports park on Waiheke Island, it’s exactly the sound you’ll hear. As you round the bend on the long driveway through the mānuka scrub, the first thing that appears is the Waiheke United AFC players, in their red strip, playing another team from Lotto NRFL First Division, the second highest football league in New Zealand.

Then you see the source of the noise – the fans. They gather on the small makeshift terraces above the pitch between two sets of large flags – Chilean, Brazilian and Argentinian next to the Waiheke United colours, all fluttering in the bright morning sun.

There are not many supporters, fewer than 100. But with the dancing and the laughing and the singing in Spanish over the wild, captivating drumbeat, it seems as though they could comfortably fill the Maracanã Stadium.

The club’s fans celebrating at a home game: Video: Michael Andrew

Anyone who knows about Waiheke United knows about the fans – on an island of enigmas, they are perhaps the most enigmatic.

Consisting largely of Latin Americans, they chant for their beloved Waiheke United with such passion and colour the club could be River Plate or São Paulo FC. And they have reason to celebrate – the senior men’s team has climbed five divisions through the New Zealand football system in as many years, benefiting from the massive influx of South Americans to the island who have brought with them their enthusiasm and talent for the beautiful game.

Much like how London has grown to be a mecca for Kiwis living abroad, Waiheke has become an essential destination for young South Americans travelling to New Zealand on temporary work visas. They are drawn to the temperate climate, the abundant seasonal work, the welcoming locals and increasingly, the opportunity to play for Waiheke United AFC.

The Waiheke United senior men’s team has climbed five divisions in the New Zealand football league in the past five years (Graphic: Michael Andrew)

Facu Calvo is partly responsible for this. An Argentinian and former player now living back in Buenos Aires, he first started playing for the team in 2014, two years into its remarkable ascent through the footballing ranks.

However, the frequent movement of the Latin American travellers off the island meant the team was often struggling to keep players. He began campaigning to persuade more travellers to stay long-term and play for the team. He even made a film documenting the club and the surrounding community in an effort to spread awareness.

He’s certainly done that. The story has since become widespread and highly publicised, receiving coverage from the likes of ESPN Argentina which sent a team over to cover a match.

“Here in Argentina many radios, magazines, newspaper, TV shows, blogs, books wrote about us and made us plenty of interviews,” Calvo says.

Now, young South Americans come to live on Waiheke with the exclusive intent of trying out and playing for the team, which also boasts a number of long-term veteran players.

Waiheke United AFC vs Mt Albert Ponsonby while the fans celebrate on the terrace (Photo: Michael Andrew)

If the candidates don’t make the grade however, they can always join the ranks of the ardent fans who bring their energy, their support and their music to every match home and away.

“Football for South Americans, it’s passion.” Calvo says. “Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans, Brazilians – we live with football everyday and we try to share it in New Zealand.”

And yet the fans do more than just celebrate the team. They form a network of support around the club, assisting with marketing, logistics, fund-raising and preparing the food for the players and the visiting teams at home games.

However, it isn’t simply the love of football that is driving this support network – typically the fans and players are personal friends or partners who work together, eat together and live together throughout the week.

“One of the main things that Waiheke has is the group that plays together also share the whole week in the small community. We work together, we have dinner together probably every day,” Calvo says.

“Many of the people that decide to stay on Waiheke during winter is because they play football or their girlfriends play football or their boyfriends play football. This is one of the main advantages that Waiheke has.”

The Quick Cats dominated their league in the 2019 season, finishing first and earning promotion (Photo: Michael Andrew)

The club’s women’s teams have also benefited from the Latin American influence. The senior women’s team, The Quick Cats, has flourished the past few years, finishing top of the league for the 2019 season.

These achievements have only added to Waiheke’s Latin American population, which has boomed in unison with the teams’ success.

Alejo Villasana has also noticed this. Another Argentinian, Villasana has been playing in the senior men’s team since 2016, the same year he came to live on the island.

He says that while there were already Latin Americans when he came, many more have arrived in the past four years, lured by both the football team and the prospect of seamless integration into an established community.

“Everyone knows that here on Waiheke you will find someone who will help you,” he says. “It’s easier if you don’t speak English to become familiarised with the place and the people.”

A rugby player for much of his life, Villasana says the year he joined the team was particularly special.

“We made a really strong team that year and won the league. And in 2017 we almost got through the season unbeaten, we just lost the last game. But we got promoted to second division and that was 2018.”

The men’s team singing the club chant to the tune of ‘Bad Moon Rising’ by Credence Clearwater Revival. Video: Michael Andrew

Villasana talks about this time as if it were the golden days. The team had reached a level never thought possible, and it was even attracting coverage from the likes of Newshub and Stuff, further raising its profile and the prospect of attracting more players.

Then, he says, progress started to stall.

The coach at the time was Dennis Wickstead, one of New Zealand’s few internationally certified coaches. He had been with the team since 2016 and had helped it achieve two successive promotions.

Three games before the end of the 2017 season, right before the team’s promotion, doctors found melanoma in his leg, forcing him step aside.

With the team poised to enter a highly competitive, semi-professional league the following season, the players pushed the club committee to hire an experienced replacement to lead the team through the rigours of the higher division.

The club president signed a highly regarded and accomplished coach from Auckland, who had finished top of the NRFL Premier League and won the Chatham Cup with Eastern Suburbs in 2015.

While his move to Waiheke was lauded as a “coaching coup” that signalled the ambitions of the team, it didn’t yield the results everyone was expecting. A different coaching style led to other footballers being signed from mainland clubs, meaning far less playing time for the Latin Americans, something the passionate fans took personally.

While the new players were eager to embrace the Latin American “spirit” of the club at first, Villasana says they weren’t as enthusiastic about maintaining certain traditions like preparing meals for the visiting team or fundraising.

However, he says the biggest grievance came down to money – the new recruits were being paid while the Latin American players were not. “We are a really small club, it’s a small island, and everything that we do here is just for love. No one gets paid, not even one player,” he says.

“[The coach] started bringing these players, paying them and paying their accommodation, with the aim of just getting promoted and reaching the first division.”

Waiheke United AFC vs Mt Albert Ponsonby while the fans celebrate on the terrace (Photo: Michael Andrew)

With the Latin Americans players sitting on the bench, the fans began to disappear as well, taking with them their phenomenal energy, which had for so long defined the club’s character. “It was a really hard year for most of us,” Villasana says. “Mainly because our supporters were not following us any more.”

Tensions grew throughout the season with the president leaving halfway through 2018 and the division between the Latin American players and the rest of the team deepening.

At the end of the season, despite the improved finances and talented ensemble of players, the team failed to earn promotion, finishing third after losing their last three matches.

Villasana recalls it as a bizarre conclusion to a turbulent six months. “We were second [in the league] by then and North Shore was third but the funny part is that we had really easy games to get promoted and we didn’t win. North Shore ended up being second and they got promoted.”

A week after the season finished the coach signed with another team, taking with him the players he had brought to Waiheke.

Without a president and a coach, the remnants of the team found themselves in a difficult situation, desperately needing to rebuild in order to prepare for the following season.

They were told that without a qualified coach, or an under-23 reserve squad, they would not meet the criteria of the NRFL first division and therefore would not be able to play in 2019.

This was an imposing obstacle for the team. Being an island community with a small population and no university, Waiheke’s younger residents often leave the island for study and work. This means there is an extremely limited pool of young players from which the club can recruit.

However, over the 2018-2019 summer the players and fans rallied together and made a concerted effort to keep the hopes alive by raising funds and recruiting as many people as possible.

“It was a really tough summer for us, we made a lot of parties and tournaments [to raise funds] and we had help from some of our sponsors and the founder of the club,” Villasana says.

However, there was still the pressing need to find a qualified coach.

A temporary full-in coach was not working out, so Villasana decided to contact former coach Dennis Wickstead, who was recuperating in Hawkes Bay and persuaded him to come back to continue his coaching on Waiheke.

On the mend, Wickstead moved back to the island prior to the 2019 season and helped the team pick up the pieces and recover their former vitality and momentum.

A leadership coach outside of football, Wickstead takes a much more pragmatic and philosophical approach to the game, grounded in the idea that the pursuit of success should not eclipse the present moment.

“What I’m interested in is creating a really great environment for these people to come here and experience the country and play some football,” he says.

“They’re pretty unique people to coach because most of them don’t speak English so it requires something a little different, and we really enjoy a good place to be and play together.”

Conscious of some of players’ “life or death” footballing mentality they have adopted in their home countries, Dennis teaches mindfulness to temper their emotions and give them more perspective and composure.

“They’ve got a bit of a reputation for being a bit hot-headed and we wanted to change that. There used to be tears and just breaking down,” he says.

“We spend three days training and one full session working on mindfulness and meditation.”

The mindfulness has allowed the players to let go of their obsession with promotion and enjoy themselves and their time no matter what happens, which Dennis says is what Waiheke is all about.

The Waiheke senior men’s team with coach Dennis Wickstead in the centre (Photo: Michael Andrew)

This shift in mentality has also affected the fans, who team manager Gareth Jenkins says have also been guilty of falling victim to their emotions.

While he says the passion and celebrations are incredibly special and unique for the club, it has caused issues in the past, especially during the 2018 season when the Latin American players were benched. “It all turned a bit nasty and the fans stopped cheering and caused us a few issues on and off the field,” he says.

“Unfortunately, a couple of fans who didn’t like what was happening made the environment unpleasant for the local sponsor so they withdrew from the club.

“We learnt a lot from that season. So, this season was a rebuild and a review.”

2019 has certainly been that. The team finished mid-table and nowhere near promotion. However the energy had been relentlessly positive and healthy throughout the year.

This emotional development was evident at the final match – a home game against Mt Albert-Ponsonby.

Perhaps the mindfulness training had rubbed off on the fans, or maybe they were simply overjoyed to have their beloved Waiheke united back. Whatever the reason, the celebrations did not cease for one moment, even when Waiheke went 3-1 down.

After the match, the players joined the celebrations on the terraces and were embraced as if they had just won the Copa América.

They went to the changing rooms with smiles as wide as the Hauraki Gulf. They just lost and knew they had a busy summer ahead of them; a desperate race to fill the under-23 team to ensure qualification for 2019.

They didn’t seem to care. They were in the moment, singing at the top of their lungs the Waiheke football chant. The lyrics loosely translate to “Waiheke I’ll follow you everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you lose or win”.

It’s the sound of passion and pride. It’s the sound of Waiheke.

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