Former New Zealand internationals Sarah Gregorius and Ivan Vicelich have each played at the highest possible level but, despite recently stepping away from the spotlight, are set for an unexpected return to the global stage when they take part in the World Masters Games in Auckland over the next week.
After long and illustrious careers for the Football Ferns and All Whites respectively, both players would have assumed their days of competing at international level were over and they are relishing the prospect of strutting their stuff against opponents from foreign shores once more.
Both have plenty of top-class company in their respective teams with Gregorius’ Ferns Reunited featuring a host of former Football Ferns – including the likes of Priscilla Duncan, Kristy Hill, Rebecca Rolls and Cushla Lichtwark – while Vicelich’s Central United line-up features fellow ex-All Whites David Mulligan, Paul Urlovic and David Rayner, as well as Auckland City legend Grant Young.
Many of those involved have had limited game time in recent weeks with the winter season in New Zealand having only just kicked off while age has inevitably taken its toll. Like most teams in the tournament, there will therefore be question marks over fitness and conditioning but Gregorius is confident the competitive nature of her Ferns Reunited team mates will shine through regardless.
“We haven’t really got together and nutted out tactics or anything like that but there’s a competitive streak in all of them and I think that will come out,” she said.
“We’ll have to wait and see whether they can physically do it because it’s a tough schedule but, mentally, I think they’ll be charging out of the blocks from the first whistle right until the last.”
Vicelich says his Central side has also had limited preparations and will be relying on the nous picked up from so many years of playing at the top level.
“There’s a lot of good history there on the team sheet but that needs to be transferred onto the park and, the older you get, the more difficult it is to run around. We’ve got a lot of smart brains and hopefully that can help us put together some good results but I think the most important thing is for us to enjoy the moment,” he said.
As the most-capped All White in history, 40-year-old Vicelich has received plenty of special attention since stepping down to social level and admits it’s strange to be the focal point of opposing game plans.
“You get a bit of double marking and someone following you around for the whole game. It can be very competitive and the tackles fly in all the time so you need to be as sharp as you can be,” he said.
“But it’s a bit amusing because obviously the legs aren’t what they used to be so it’s not that hard to mark me out of the game. Sometimes teams turn up, see a few of our ex-Auckland City boys and say ‘What are you guys doing here?’ But they seem to forget that once you’re over 35 you can play at any level.”
In just her 30th year and having only recently retired from Football Ferns duty, Gregorius is likewise expected to be a key figure for Ferns Reunited but says plenty of other members of the team will also be putting their hands up for that star player mantle.
“Maybe as one of the younger players, they’ll expect me to do a bit more running. But, just quietly, I think everyone fancies themselves and will all be champing at the bit to be the hero,” she said
After a professional career that took in spells with clubs in Australia, England, Germany and Japan – as well as two FIFA Women’s World Cups and two Olympic Games campaigns – the 82-cap former Fern has now gone back to her roots with hometown club Upper Hutt City.
“It’s been really fun being back in that community space,” she said.
“Don’t get me wrong, you still have a smile on your face when you play for the Ferns but it’s been really nice to shift where I am as an athlete away from that high performance environment to feeling like I’m giving back a bit more. It’s not about me – it’s about helping others now.”
Gregorius’ former Football Ferns coach, Tony Readings, is also dusting the boots off to play for Birkenhead United while Auckland City boss Ramon Tribulietx is doing likewise for Vicelich’s Central team. Rangitoto United will be a real threat to Central in the Men’s A-Grade Premier 35+ competition as they boast a wealth of All Whites’ experience in Leigh Kenyon, Jeff Campbell, Noah Hickey, Graham Pearce, Gerard Davis, Ross Nicholson and Tim Stevens.
Elsewhere, ex-All Whites captain Rodger Gray is joined by former team mates Carl Jorgensen and Noel Barkley – also CEO of the New Zealand Football Foundation – in the Kiwi Masters side competing in the Men’s A-Grade Premier 50+ competition while former Football Ferns Maia Jackman and Marlies James will star for PMP in the Women’s A-Grade Premier 35+ category.