“I see you!”: Malia Steinmetz’s journey to find herself and return to the Ferns

Ford Football Fern #179 Malia Steinmetz’s reemergence for the Ford Football Ferns has been one of the stories of this World Cup cycle.

Steadily building a reputation as a player who intuitively knows where to play the ball, she offers grit and increasing nous to the Ferns midfield.

When you watch her play, there’s an overriding sense that the former U-20s captain is always exactly where she needs be.

But like many journeys to senior international football, Malia’s wasn’t straightforward. The step up in pressure coupled with her own questions around her identity and sense of belonging as a Samoan-Kiwi was challenging. 

“It was quite hard to find a place of belonging in a high intensive environment. So I found it very difficult. It didn’t take until Jitka [Klimková] coming in for me to figure it out really,” Malia remembers. 

“I was in uni not knowing what I was doing and who I was. I became very lost. I quit football for about six months, and that time away helped me realise my love for the game.” 

It’s no secret that football, like many other sports in Aotearoa New Zealand, has tended to underrepresent Pasifika. Being a predominantly Pākeha space hasn’t made it the easiest environment for other cultures to come into and find belonging, and the pressure of high performance sport adds another layer of complexity.  

What was it like navigating that environment growing up? Malia is thoughtful. 

“Growing up I think a lot of my issues stemmed from the fact I didn’t know who I was,” she says. 

“And I think that was a really important part for me to figure out to then keep going with football.  

“I’m half Samoan and half Kiwi, but I grew up in a predominantly Pākeha area and went to schools that had a predominantly Pākeha roll. It was pretty easy for me to slot into that, but then there would be moments where I wanted to be identified as Samoan, or someone would point me out as being Samoan and I wouldn’t know how to respond or how to be – because I felt plastic. And that was really hard.”

Malia and her grandmother at her FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2018 shirt presentation, with New Zealand Football President Johanna Wood. 

Malia recently got a traditional Samoan tatau on her right hand with her mum and grandmother, and during this there was sharing stories of family and life back in Samoa. It was this experience that helped Malia to connect with her identity and embed a sense of knowing who she is and where she comes from. 

“It helped me see that even though my upbringing has been kiwi, I am also Samoan, and there are so many strong Samoan women in my family who have got me to where I am today. My grandmother and mother embody that for me.” 

As Malia has become more confident in her identity, she’s increasingly finding comfort in being a role model to other Pasifika people in football – and how they are coming to identify with her too, and the moments of recognition and connection that these moments bring. 

“I saw a few kids when we were going around [after games] and they all looked at my tatau,” she recalls.  

“And then I’d go ‘yeah, I’m Samoan,’ and they’d go ‘aahhh!’ And then you’d feel a little bit of connection and recognition – like ‘I see you!’. 

Finding the sense of belonging that’s needed to flourish in international football might not have come easy for Malia. But with a home World Cup around the corner, she’s rediscovered that sense of love and fun in the game and the Fern.  

“Every time I put the Fern on it just feels right. I feel peace in a sense: I feel good stepping into this and doing this. I’m so happy to be here. 

“I try to own it. And feel the pride and honour of all the people who came before me and all the people that are going to come after me. I feel so privileged to be in this spot, in this moment.”