Monday 10 July 2023, 21:00

Atkinson: Representation needs to reflect the diverse landscape that we live in

  • Cheri-Lee Atkinson buoyed by recent FIFA's Women in Football Leadership Programme

  • New Zealander says programme brought an invaluable boost in self-belief

  • “This beautiful game can inspire, it can lead and it can be full of enjoyment for everyone”

Cheri-Lee Atkinson is passionate about many things be it football, opening up the game for all, her Māori heritage or opportunities for women. With that in mind, 2023 is proving to be a dream year for the New Zealander. The Hamilton/Kirikiriroa-based Atkinson is not only primed to see her home nation enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience with co-hosting of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup™, but is flourishing in a board role at a regional association and is now also helping to deliver change for the female community at a governance level. The year, though, started with an unexpected, but richly rewarding experience at the fourth edition of the FIFA's Women in Football Leadership Programme. The overarching aim of the co-hosted FIFA/UEFA programme is simple: to promote women in leadership positions in the world of football.

Atkinson, who is of Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga and Kai Tahu descent, said developing the skills, confidence and support networks proved to be invaluable learnings from her five days in Lausanne. “This programme was about personal development and perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate that component until I got there,” she said. “But it made me realise it is exactly what we need as female leaders. To develop our own self-awareness to become better leaders. We all had varying challenges around confidence and self-doubt. What some of us took away from that week was that we all have a right to be in the roles that we’re in as leaders.” “Personally, I found that a transition into a leadership role came with a whole lot of self-doubt initially, so it was really nice to participate in the programme and be reminded that I am capable, I’m a natural leader and I have a right to be there in my position as a leader. “Those kinds of messages were important to me to be able to come back home with. Previously I had developed this low-self esteem about myself based on this idea that some people may have an unconscious bias against me being ‘young, Māori and female’. The programme helped me separate that narrative I’d created as my own stumbling block and focus on more positive messages to myself.”

The participants now stay connected through a heavily-trafficked WhatsApp group - Thunder Sisters. Their support and shared experiences continue to enrich the various members who hail from all corners of the globe. “We were in this very special confidential and intimate group [during the programme]. We were encouraging to each other, but also honest, which allowed us to identify those blind spots and grow. We have trust in each other and know that any feedback comes from a good place.”

Back home, Atkinson is on the WaiBOP Football Federation board - one of six district federations affiliated to the national body - with the organisation representing the North Island’s Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions. The role, she believes, is one of stewardship and protecting the values of football in New Zealand. The region’s biggest city, Hamilton/Kirikiriroa, will be among nine cities welcoming the world’s finest female footballers in July and August. Waikato Stadium will host five matches, including outings for former world champions Norway and Japan. With two football-playing children, and some Waikato youngsters featuring in recent New Zealand squads, the value of role-models and associated legacy post-Women’s World Cup is clear. “The opportunity I hope that it will bring to New Zealand is the idea that this is a global sport and it can take women and girls anywhere,” Atkinson said, whose busy football lifestyle also includes transporting her own children to various football activities. “And it’s the idea that this game, this beautiful game can inspire, it can lead and it can be full of enjoyment for everyone.” “It is really cool to see the excitement among the youngsters and both of mine are very excited. My daughter is suggesting we should go to Australia to see games. She is planning ways to leverage this World Cup too!”

Atkinson says decision making and policy discussion needs to reflect the modern landscape, a reality that has only been compounded by the massive growth in women’s football. “The entire landscape has changed so that sort of representation needs to reflect the diverse landscape we live in. “I would recommend the FIFA's Women in Football Leadership Programme to anyone without hesitation. I count myself very lucky to have that opportunity and, on reflection, that has been pretty pivotal to me as a leader.”