The Scootish Cup final of the Waikato Sunday Soccer League.
Serious business: Rodrigo Navarro, right, fights back for the ball with Vinod Naicka in a game between LIONZ football club, in red and white, and Union Latina, in black and yellow, played at Gower Park in Hamilton.
It’s a bitterly cold and wet afternoon. The Rugby World Cup is on and many people are warmly ensconced indoors watching it. However, down at Gower Park in Melville, Hamilton, a different type of football is being played. It’s no less international though.
This is the Scottish Cup Final of the Waikato Sunday Soccer League, a veritable United Nations of football.
The Union Latinos – a side with players from Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Paraguay, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and odd man out East Timor – are locked in a tight battle with 3DS Lionz FC, a team made up of Fijian Indians.
“For us, football is the culture of South America,” states Cesar Alonzo, captain of the Union Latinos. “And in New Zealand, football helps bring our community together. It helps us preserve our identity.”
And it’s not just South Americans. The Waikato Sunday Soccer League is perhaps the ideal example of the social melting pot, the multicultural ideal that New Zealanders aspire to but doesn’t always occur in the region. On any given winter Sunday morning, teams made up of English, Cambodians, Iraqis, Congolese, Koreans, Chinese, Fijians, Indians, Djiboutians and Somalians battle it out for football supremacy.
The competition itself dates to 1968. A couple of expat Liverpudlians, Dylan Tate and Harry Gilcrist, arranged a friendly match between their respective firms. Dylan was a Mighty Reds supporter, Harry an Everton fan, and it was decided the ideal way to resolve their differences was on the pitch. The result was unrecorded, but the popularity of the game encouraged other teams to participate and Hamilton’s first “business house” competition was born. It evolved into a proper league in 1976 and though initially a Hamilton-only affair, it came to include teams from as far afield as Rotorua and Thames.
“Initially the league was a business house competition made up mainly of government departments,” Dave Gunn, a former player, manager and secretary of the Sunday League, says.
“There were the police, Ministry of Works, the airforce, Telecom – you name it, every government department had a team in the 1980s. We used to play a lot of games out at where Te Awa is now. The airforce base had the ideal pitches and the cheapest beer for the after-match functions.”
But after Rogernomics cut a swathe through the public sector, league numbers dropped significantly. It was not until a new wave of soccer-mad migrants started to arrive in the 1990s that the league grew again, up to its peak of more than 30 teams.
“My team, Zig-Zag, was one of the first to include a few Somalian players. They were initially shy to get involved, but once they did, and they started to form their own teams, it really helped them to mix with other Kiwis,” Dave says.
There’s a cliche about sport breaking barriers. This is not always so, but the Sunday league, which keeps costs low by not being affiliated to the Football Federation, could be close to the mark.
The informal nature of the competition grants new migrants to form teams made up of friends and family. Temporary visitors to the region, such as Chinese students or the English trainee pilots from CTC Aviation, are also able to play without being shackled to the “official” league.
Not that the games are necessarily harmonious, or always played in a social spirit. Matches are often fiercely competitive and the lack of professional referees can make successful arbitration difficult.
Current league secretary Yassir Rassak states that at least once a season, a serious fight breaks out and teams have to front up to a judiciary, where they receive fines.
One season a few years back, a Cambodian XI was banned from the league for a time after a brawl resulted in a drawn knife.
“Not that this should detract from the league essentially being a self-policing, self-organising affair that runs pretty smoothly,” Yassir says.
The social nature of the competition has not only been a drawcard for business and ethnic communities, but for alternative community groups as well. Barnstoneworth – a team named after a Ripping Yarns skit by Monty Python’s Michael Palin, celebrates its 30th year as a Sunday League football club next year. This is a team with its origins in the McGillicuddy Serious movement.
“The McGillicuddys had their own theater group and political party. There was a lot of grassroots stuff being started at the same time,” present manager Mark Servian says. “Many of the same people involved also had a passion for football - so that is how it all began.”
Mark’s passion for the league even extends to painting his van in red and white stripes – the colours of Barnstoneworth’s jersey.
He also came up with badges inscribed with the motto, “Hard as Snails.” The snail logo is a reference to the more senior make-up of his team, most of whom are aged well over 30.
“It’s a generational thing with Barnstoneworth,” Mark says. “The kids who grew up on the sidelines watching the team are now out there playing, sometimes right alongside their mums and dads.”
The family connection is something both the Union Latinos and 3DS Lionz FC would concur with. Children and family have braved atrocious conditions at Gower Park to cheer their sides on.
In the end, the silky skills of the South Americans prove too much for the valiant Fijian team, and they chalk up a 4-0 win.
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