Rebecca Smith interview: The Football Ferns unplugged – Life on the tour bus for Kiwi captain
Whether witnessing the ‘who’s who’ of music passing through the Californian setting she grew up in or sampling the sounds of her native Kiwi culture, New Zealand international defender and captain Rebecca Smith has an unconditional attachment to music, and it runs through her Football Ferns teammates too.
Exploring exactly how music has managed to find its way into the various elements of football is one of the pillars of this site and its value as a source of inter-team connections and a fuel of positive feeling in the preparation for games is one such example. ‘Bex’ has been one of the few constants in recent years within the ever-changing VfL Wolfsburg squad in Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga and has lead her nation New Zealand in World Cup and Olympic competition.
The Football Ferns made it to the quarter-final of the tournament at the 2012 Games in London and Bex scored the opening goal in the decisive 3-1 win over Cameroon to secure their place in the last eight as one of the best third-place finishers in the group stage. The women’s game in New Zealand has undergone a spell of very admirable growth over the past few years in particular and Bex reveals one of the ways that the Ferns like to keep their team chemistry at its optimum level.
“I think our national team is really connected to music and we always have a guitar on the road that most of the team can pick up and play fairly comfortably, some better than others! We are always singing songs in the bus or in the hotels and it makes the environment so chill.’’
As her role as captain demands, Bex is a strong leader for her team and can invariably be found in the mix when it comes to the Ferns’ social and bonding situations. This was evident when we discussed the fairly widespread tradition that male and female teams have in which players (particularly new ones) are called upon to sing for everyone. Bex tells how this began for her during her time with the women’s soccer team at Duke University in North Carolina before carrying on right up to the present day for her at international level
“Who hasn’t had to sing in front of their teammates for whatever reason?! We have initiation on every team, which started at Duke where we had to start in the toilet at the end of the bus and come out to a song the team had chosen and dance and sing all the way down to the coaches and driver…and then come back!
“The national team also has a fun initiation and my favourite ‘performance’ was when we had a last-minute tour to China where our Under-20s coach at the time took most of his team, plus like six senior players. We decided that to make the young ones comfortable we would dress up like hardcore rockers and sing ‘Paradise City’ (Guns N’ Roses) complete with our hairbrush microphones and broom guitars.
“We had more fun rehearsing in our room and getting dressed up than I think the young ones actually appreciated it!’’
The specific sound choices that are put together when the team is gathered before they go out onto the field can do a lot to shape the mood of the players. If the playlist hits the mark then it can inspire and galvanize the group and Bex sees a certain degree of motivation gained through this method at both club and international level with her respective teams.
“I think for my teams it is a lot of dance music, which isn’t necessarily my first choice for pre-game but when I see it pumps up my teammates it doesn’t bother me. We always have loud dance music on before games and even for all our trainings at Wolfsburg.’’
I have mentioned on here before how some of the interviewees have a liking for certain elements of music whereas others really take it to another level. This is actually the 129th interview on the site so far and I think Bex may have taken the honour of the biggest music lover on here so far, or at least the one who has shown it the most! Although she is of course the captain of New Zealand with her parents originally coming from Christchurch, Bex was born and raised in California. The music tastes of a person can give you such an insight into where they come from and this is perfectly evident with Bex when she talks about some of the hugely reputable musicians she has seen live.
“Growing up in Los Angeles we were lucky that most of the big names always came through and we had the opportunity to see anyone we wanted. I think the live concerts and gigs are what got me so into music because you can really appreciate how talented the musicians are when they are live on stage entertaining.
“I used to live for going to gigs, festivals, concerts, and basically any small venue that was playing great live music. I’ve been to some classics like Rolling Stones, U2, BB King, (Jimmy) Page and (Robert) Plant (Led Zeppelin), AC/DC, Bryan Adams, REO Speedwagon, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, The Eagles, Bob Dylan.’’
Bex is lucky enough to have the best of both when it comes to Californian and Kiwi culture and her frequent visits to New Zealand throughout her life so far have made quite an impression on her when it comes to the melodic offerings on show.
“I think the coolest thing about New Zealand is the live music scene – there are so many great Kiwi musicians that are playing pretty much everywhere you go. I walk into a cafe and there is a guy sitting on a stool in the corner with a guitar singing, there are buskers in every city, and in all the small venues.
“There is always great music, so a lot of my best memories in New Zealand were involving music. Our family loves it too so we are always playing guitar and singing.’’
Besides the way that it can take you to another world with the feelings it can give, one quality I have always held dear with music is how it can spark the most vivid nostalgia from the first second you hear a song from a moment in your life. When Bex talked me through the artists she enjoys the most this was a sentiment she touched upon more than once.
“What music I am listening to at any point totally depends on my life phase, how I’m feeling, who I am around, and what environment I’m in. I think that’s the power of music – to be able to enhance pretty much any life situation.
“I’m a huge music fan and I love hearing new music, but I am also a fan of the oldies and good rock. I grew up with The Beatles, Tom Petty, The Bee Gees, Meat Loaf, ZZ Top, Billy Joel, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Steve Miller Band, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon.
“I can listen to this music to get me pumped up to work out or before a game just because it makes me nostalgic reminding me of an awesome childhood. When I went to college at Duke in North Carolina, I got into, or luckily forced into, country music, which I also came to love because of the awesome stories they always tell and the great musicians they are.
“I can pretty much always appreciate singer/songwriters like Sara Bareilles, John Mayer, who we used to watch at a small gig in Chapel Hill before he was a name, Christina Perri, Rachel Yamagata, Robert Francis, Tristan Prettyman, Tegan and Sara, Sarah McLaughlin. I love Spanish guitar music, which started (for me) from Gipsy Kings, and I also love dance music and something with a little bit of a beat to dance to, because I dig getting my groove on.
“Some Swedish music too from my time there like Laleh, Kent, Lars Winnerback, Lena Philipsson, Tomas Ledin.’’
That idea of music bringing up memories for someone can work in varying ways and this was the case for Bex as she recalled the first record and gig in her life from her time back home with her parents and sister Vanessa. This also brought up a fashion Bex showcased at the time that can only really be described as ‘bad to the bone’!
“Before my first record I ever bought was my first live concert, George Thorogood and the Destroyers and I think I was about 7. My parents are big music fans too and I remember I wore that red, no-sleeved sweatshirt/vest, I don’t even know what it would be called now.
“It was so incredibly 80s and it had a big electric guitar on until it got holes in it. Thank goodness it has stayed in the 80s since!
“I think my first album, on a cassette tape of course, was Paula Abdul ‘Forever Your Girl’, and ‘Straight Up’ rocked.’’
Bex is a sportswoman and person with more than a few stories to tell. Despite basketball success to go with her academic achievements while in high school at Chadwick Academy she came to the decision in her freshman year that soccer was her calling, and how right that would prove to be. The game has taken her around the world, with playing spells in Sweden and of course her long-time port of call Germany, as well as her leading role for the Football Ferns in two Olympic Games and two World Cups. Music and football are extremely strong factors in making up the Bex that we see today but I also wanted to hear about how she has supported herself away from her sport to this point.
“I love studying and learning, and it’s always been important to me to do something outside of football not just for the end of my career, but because I enjoy having a good balance in my life and love experiencing different industries. I came from an economics background in college at Duke University and then worked part-time in law offices while in Frankfurt, and then when I went to Sweden.
“I learned Swedish and worked at a manufacturing plant for hydraulic cylinders doing managing projects and doing quality control. I also worked a lot with the marketing department at the club (Sunnanå SK) and organised some events for the city during that time, which was a lot of fun.
“When I came back to Germany, I wanted to do my MBA, so I found Gisma Business School, which offered a dual US and German MBA degree through Purdue University and I loved that time since we had over 30 countries represented there! After that, I started working at Volkswagen in International Sales for Far East/Oceania and I love it!
“I also started studying extramurally for my post grad psychology degree because I just think it’s such a fascinating area of study and I could see myself working in the field of occupational psychology, but at this point I’m not limited to any industry. I’ve always wanted to start my own business, so there are plans in the pipeline for that as well.’’
Bex made reference to her time with Sunnanå SK in the reputable Damallsvenskan division from 2005 to 2008 and this lead back into talk of music, with teammates she has had that have put in memorable singing performances in front of everyone.
“One of my teammates in Sweden, Kicki Wiklund, was an absolutely incredible singer and could play the guitar like a pro. She had studied music and it was just a huge part of who she is.
“She used to come over and she would teach me a few guitar songs and would sing and those were some really memorable evenings because gradually we two turned into about a group of five that consistently cooked dinner together and played and sang. When she performed anywhere our whole team would always go and listen to her sing like an angel!
“Also, one of our national team young players, Holly Henderson, had to do her initiation while in the USA last year. It entailed her putting on headphones and blasting a song of her choice so loud that she couldn’t hear her own voice, and she then sang into the bus microphone.’’
One incredible characteristic that music and football share is the way they can bring people together almost regardless of any kind of barrier in language and culture. Bex has had teammates in her club career from all over the world and she describes the sounds and moves that some of them brought to the table, as well as what she thinks to the music she gets to hear on a daily basis now she is with Wolfsburg.
“I think the Nigerian music was so much fun to listen to because my teammates were dancing to it as well and they could really dance! The German schlager is hilarious, that is what they all sing when they are at Karneval or Oktoberfest or basically any kind of festival, or even just where people are drinking beer!
“It definitely did not help me learn German since it is a lot of the time in different dialects, which are really hard to understand. It did help me to understand the German culture, which I think can be a lot of fun sometimes.’’
On the field, Bex and her Wolfsburg teammates saw their latest match with Bayern Munich postponed but they still lead the way at the top of the Bundesliga, with Turbine Potsdam and 1. FFC Frankfurt in pursuit. She gives her view on the strength of the league and the standout individuals, as well as the outlook for Wolfsburg as they try to go one better than last year and lift the title.
“I’ve been playing for Wolfsburg now for four and a half seasons and I can say the biggest consistency with the team is the constant changes it has gone through in that time. From the 22 players that were there when I started there are only six left and maybe two that are starters.
“It has been really amazing to see the development of VfL Wolfsburg in that time and I’ve met a lot of great friends during these years. I got injured after the Olympics this year and I didn’t play in the first half of the season, so it has also been interesting to see the team from a different perspective for those months, but it’s a great bunch of girls and a good set-up.
“The standard of the women’s game in Germany has improved as immensely as our team has. I think because the World Cup was hosted by Germany in 2011 there was a lot of focus on and investment in the women’s game here beforehand, which has really helped improve the quality of the players, who have been given more of a chance to be more professional.
“The league has also become more professional since I first played here in 2004 (with Frankfurt) and it is arguably the best women’s league in the world with Sweden and France.
“I always thought Birgit Prinz was hard to play against because she was so strong and fast. Celia Okoyino da Mbabi (Bad Neuenahr) is also a great player because you always have to find her and she is often in the right place at the right time.
“The forward from Potsdam, Genoveva Añonma, is also a very tricky player. Nowadays I would say that the younger players like Alexandra Popp (Wolfsburg) and Dzsenifer Marozsán (Frankfurt) are two of the future stars of women’s football.
“Of course I think all the VfL Wolfsburg players are the best!’’
As well as the legendary German striker Birgit Prinz, the current players Bex mentions have each graced the international stage, Okoyino da Mbabi, Popp and Marozsán with Germany and Añonma with Equatorial Guinea. There are numerous New Zealand internationals plying their trade in German football at present with Sarah Gregorius and Emma Kete of Bad Neuenahr just two examples and the Football Ferns will be competing in the Cyprus Cup in March. Tony Readings’ team are in a group with Italy, England and Scotland and it is the latest opportunity for the Ferns to continue their huge progress in recent times. Bex describes the steps forward from a playing viewpoint as well as in a wider sense for the women’s game in New Zealand.
“I think the New Zealand women’s national team has made more grounds and improvements in the last five years than almost any other national team. We started off with a much smaller and inexperienced basis, a very young team when we went to our first World Cup in China in 2007, and because the team has retained so many of those players up until this past Olympics we have been able to gather experience along the way and improve.
“There have also been a tremendous amount of structural changes within New Zealand Football that have increased its professionalism and streamlined its structure, which, at the end of the day, enables the players to be able to have consistent international games at a high level in order to improve. I am encouraged by the incredible young talent that is coming through at the age groups in New Zealand, which is a country of gifted, hard-working athletes.
“I think it’s exciting to see that the major sports associations like our SPARC and High Performance Sport New Zealand are really starting to acknowledge the performances and improvements we have made and are funding and supporting the Football Ferns. We have more funding in these next two years than we have ever had, and players are starting now to see the benefits of all their years of hard work, and that is really exciting!’’
In truth, I think I could write a book alone on Bex’s music love, and then another one on her travels within and away from football in her life! What you have here in this interview is merely a glimpse into her as a person and as an ever-influential figure for the women’s game in New Zealand. It just leaves me to wrap it up in the way that I always do on here and that is by asking Bex to choose a 5-a-side team comprising of the best players she has worked with in her career so far. This question requires the interviewee to choose themselves in the line-up and the four players Bex went for come from four different nations – perfectly indicative of the far-reaching path she has been on to this point.
“Thora Helgadottir, Icelandic goalkeeper, was my roommate at Duke, and is probably one of the most underrated goalkeepers in the women’s game. She is a beast and I’ve never seen someone move as quickly as her, and she is a genuinely lovely person.
“Hanna Marklund, (Swedish) defender, she just has a great character on the field and is a true leader. Players look to her during critical times in the game and she is just a really hard defender and plays with passion.
“Perpetua Nkwocha, (Nigerian) midfielder, she was just fabulous with the ball at her feet. She was one of the fastest and quickest players I have ever played with and against, and she just loved the game, you could always see how much she loved football when she played…except when it was snowing!
“Kate Gill (New Zealand-born Australian) forward – Kate is one of the hardest-working players I have ever played with. She is always moving and fighting for everything, she’s the perfect target player because she can hold anything up and is amazing in the air.
“She also plays with so much passion.’’