The smiles said it all. When Shakael Pickering blasted a shot into the back of the net at the Kaikohe Football Club earlier this month, the humble 14-year-old probably wasn’t thinking about being a role model. But when you’re surrounded by dozens of local kids watching your every move, it’s going to happen regardless.

They were there as part of the Just Play Festival, the first of its kind run in New Zealand. A joint project between the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), Māori Football Aotearoa (MFA), New Zealand Football (NZF), Northern Region Football (NRF) and Kaikohe AFC, the aim was to bring the game to a region where football’s growth needs to be encouraged. It wasn’t just part of growing a game, either, with the three key values of Whānau Ora, Kia Ora and Football Ora at the forefront of the day.

The children engaged in drills and games, for some it was the first time they’d played football properly. Judging by the turnout and engagement of the local community, Kaikohe’s first Just Play Festival was a great success. Shakeal is a player who has represented the age-grade Aotearoa Maori side. He was on hand to show the younger participants that, with a bit of commitment, football can take them to great places.

“We played against the Cook Islands last year and I was named captain,” he recalled.

“The role was pretty interesting, I got to lead the haka which was a good experience.”

Shakael Pickering enjoying the Just Play Festival Photo: Shane Wenzlick /

Pickering has been playing football since he was four.

“I’ve been playing since I was four for my local club, then was selected for Northland. So far I’ve been playing mostly in my own age grades, but I’ve been asked a few times to jump up in a higher grade.

“I felt that it’s cool to have something down here, it’s great to see so many familiar faces having a kick around. I love that it’s a team sport and it’s not about one person, it builds up lots of skills.”

Pickering is proof that nurturing football talent from a young age is vitally important for growing the stars and fans of tomorrow, but Just Play isn’t only for those on the field. The collaborative effort is something that is a win for the entire community, according to Kaikohe mayor John Carter.

Group shot at the Kaikohe Football Festival. Photo Credit: OFC Media.

“What’s really neat is it’s the community doing it for themselves. The mums and dads and children getting together and making something happen for them and the community. I can’t stress enough how important that is.”

Local father Te Wariti Cassidy was happy to be out in the sunshine with his children.

“Watching all the kids have a run around, it gets them out of the house and off the devices and outside and playing,” he said.

While it was the first time for many to be kicking a football around in a proper game, mother Ajay Cassidy was grateful for the experience her and Te Wariti’s kids enjoyed.

“Trying something different is what it’s about. That’s sport though, just getting out of your comfort zone.”

Whānau Ora – the value of family and community. Kia Ora – the value of a welcoming and inclusive environment. Football Ora – the value of love for the beautiful game. All of these combined to create the Just Play Festival in Kaikohe, for the benefit of a bunch of enthusiastic local kids.

They may well have been hooked for life.