Currently in the midst of the Rugby World Cup hosted in New Zealand, the New Zealand national team, the All Blacks, has millions of eyes focused on it.
Although they are the most decorated team in international rugby, the All Blacks are most famous for their haka — the pre-game war dance ritual involving vigorous foot stomping and thigh slapping from their indigeneous Maori culture — recognized by the most casual rugby observers.
The New Zealand women’s soccer team — the Football Ferns — also has a haka of its own. It’s about a canoe, filled with the 21 different personalities, techniques and energies of each player.
The canoe is an apt metaphor for the Football Ferns — a small but incredibly tight group that competes against dreadnoughts like the U.S.
What the canoe wants — and needs — is a coxswain, someone to steer the Football Ferns to greater lengths than they had ever imagined before. That leader is Betsy Hassett.
Hassett has been an energetic midfielder for the Cal women’s soccer team and coach Neil McGuire for the last three season, manning the middle of the pitch, setting up scores.
She has been doing the same thing across the world for three years. She’s trying to lead her country, and her energy is helping to fuel the cause.
At the Women’s World Cup in Germany, Hassett started all three group stage matches for the Football Ferns. As a 21-year old with 27 international matches under her belt, Hassett has established her position on an ever-changing squad.
But for New Zealand head coach Tony Readings, Hassett is part of a bigger plan.
Hassett is the foundation that Readings and New Zealand never had but always wanted to build around — a skillful, versatile midfield general that can play offense and defense effectively.
“If the team is to perform to the best of their ability it is important that Betsy performs well,” Readings says. “The type of player Betsy is means that we will always be more dangerous when she is playing to the best of her ability.”
The squad is finally rowing in the right direction.
After decades of mediocrity, the Football Ferns have participated in the two latest Women’s World Cups and the 2008 Olympics. The soccer culture in New Zealand is undergoing a sort of revolution in which a bevy of talented young players is rising through the youth programs.
And Hassett is in the center of it all.
Young players like Hassett, who participated in the 2008 and 2010 under-20 World Cups, gained valuable experience for their senior counterpart in 2011 and dreamt big for this year’s Cup.
“I was expecting us to reach the quarterfinals at the World Cup,” Hassett says.
Most of these young players rose through the ranks together since their pre-teenage years. Through nearly a decade of year-round training and traveling, they all got to know Hassett.
“She’s pretty crazy,” says Rosie White, Hassett’s national squad teammate and best friend. “She has a ton of energy within her and she shows it. She’s a bit of a freak at times, but everyone of us really loves her.”
Hassett is known for her curiosity and endless supply of energy by her Cal and New Zealand teammates alike. Her energy knows no bounds — she surfs in the summer and snowboards in the winter. Her curiosity knows no end, from learning to skateboard to speaking Swahili.
As the key player of the youth movement, Hassett is curious at the uncharted waters that the canoe is rowing towards. An inquisitive explorer at heart, she wanted to leave New Zealand to expand her soccer career. Instead of following her friends to Europe, Hassett chose to play in America, where she can study and play soccer.
“I wanted to come to the West Coast specifically because it’s the closest by flight to Auckland (her hometown),” Hassett says. “I was supposed to go to Oregon State, but Neil (McGuire) offered me a scholarship at the last minute.”
Despite her energetic personality on and off the pitch, Hassett speaks softly and quietly, emitting a surfer-type sense of coolness. She lets her engine run at full speed every match, emanating a passion that infects and inspires her teammates on the pitch.
It’s all part of the plan for the Football Ferns.
Hassett ran and ran in the World Cup, but passion and stamina couldn’t produce points.
New Zealand lost to technically superior Japan and England in the first two matches by the same scoreline of 2-1, effectively eliminating the team.
“After the England match, we were devastated because we were out of the tournament,” Hassett says.
Against Mexico, it looked like the Football Ferns would go out of the tournament with no group-stage points like the previous two World Cups. The Mexicans scored two goals in the first half, and New Zealand had failed to find an answer.
Hassett was substituted out in the 79th minute for the first time in the tournament. She tried to block out thoughts of going back home. In the face of elimination, she remained optimistic that she would be back in the next World Cup — with more experience and improved skill than before.
In the 91st minute, defender Rebecca Smith headed in a corner kick to cut the deficit in half. The color analyst at the time commented the goal as a “consolation goal” from the Mexicans in the dying embers of the match.
Minutes later, it was Mexico that needed the consoling. In the 94th minute, forward Hannah Wilkinson tied the match at 2-2. New Zealand had won its first group-stage point in World Cup history.
Pandemonium from both squads ensued. Hassett and the Football Ferns ecstatically rushed towards Wilkinson, who was running around with no celebration in mind.
“Everyone just sprinted onto the field when the goal went in,” Hassett says. “Usually we are the side that concedes these goals at the last minutes. But this time, we did it to another to win our first point ever in the World Cup.”
Watching in Rhein-Neckar-Arena in Sinsheim after the match, one might have thought that New Zealand had won the match. As the Mexicans silently walked into the locker room, the Football Ferns celebrated in the center of the pitch.
With the predominantly German spectators giving the Football Ferns a standing ovation after their hard-fought match, the Football Ferns decided to answer the crowd back in appreciation. Something of their own, something unique from New Zealand — the haka.
They sang about a canoe made up of 21 unique women from a faraway place, and of the canoe’s journey to its first point in the World Cup.
And in the middle of the players was Betsy Hassett, the future coxswain of New Zealand, rhythmically stomping her bare feet into the turf and raising her hands high in the sky.
Next time, it will be her pass that sets up the goal, perhaps for New Zealand’s first victory.