New Zealand’s soccer capital and hub of fan culture

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

New Zealand’s soccer capital of Wellington is where real fan culture thrives at the Sky Stadium, aka the Ring of Fire or, more prosaically and for the purposes of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the Wellington Regional Stadium. The home of both the men’s and women’s teams of Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand’s only representatives in the Australia-dominated A-League, The Nix are known to relocate home matches to spread some of that fan culture to soccer-starved parts of New Zealand.

The men stepped into the fray when it became obvious that Auckland could neither support nor manage a soccer club to a level necessary to take on the top sides from Sydney and Melbourne. After the hapless New Zealand Knights had struggled through the first two seasons of the A-League franchise, a later bankrupt entrepreneur by the name of Terry Serepisos stepped in to stump up more than a million New Zealand dollars to get Wellington Phoenix off the ground and into the big time.

This was in 2007. By 2011, Serepisos was billions in debt and desperate to offload The Nix, but if one man put Wellington on the soccer map, it was this New Zealander of Greek origin. Certainly, the stars were aligned back then. The Westpac Stadium, as it was known until 2019, is right on the city’s picturesque waterfront, halfway between the main train station and Wellington Central. An urban buzz of bars, galleries and boutiques lies nearby, as well as the lower station of Wellington Cable Car. This is simply a great location to site a sports stadium.

Athletic Park wasn’t. On high open ground exposed to Wellington’s famed fierce winds sweeping in off the Cook Strait dividing New Zealand’s North and South Islands, Wellington’s revered historic sports ground staged many a first.

The first All Blacks test match on home turf was played here in 1904 – for much of the 20th century, in fact, this was considered their home rather than Eden Park, although a visibly ageing Athletic Park would only host a handful of games at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987. It closed just over a decade later.

A century old in 2023, soccer’s national Chatham Cup was first contested here, won by Seacliff, their players members of staff at the notorious lunatic asylum from the town of the same name on South Island. Wellington would host every final until 1970, nearly all of them at Basin Reserve, the home of local cricket at Mount Cook just south of the city centre.

That same year saw the introduction of a National Soccer League, though the city would only welcome home the trophy three times in its initial iteration that ran for 23 years until 1992. Wellington Diamond United, an amalgamation with Dutch and rugby influences based at Newtown Park south of the city, lifted the national title in 1976, 1981 and 1985. All White great Wynton Rufer was named the country’s Young Player of the Year after his performances to win that second league title, earning him a transfer to Europe.

A further amalgamation came in 1988, with Wellington City, partly comprised of players from Hungaria, formed by Hungarian immigrants in 1962, but no more major silverware followed. The leading Wellington side became Miramar Rangers, based at one of New Zealand’s most picturesque stadiums, David Farrington Park. Surrounded by greenery, this former motor camp sits on a jut of land blessed with bays and vantage points. It’s not called Miramar for nothing.

This, poignantly, was the last place that much travelled and much troubled striker Justin Fashanu played in his professional career before committing suicide a year later, in 1998. Wynton Rufer also made appearances here before his career-changing move to FC Zürich.

Miramar took the league title twice in the early 2000s, shortly before the formation of Team Wellington with whom they shared David Farrington Park until 2021.

Often neck-and-neck with Auckland City for the Premiership won over the course of a league season, and the Championship decided by the Grand Final, Team Wellington picked up three titles and the OFC Champions League in 2018, effectively decided at Miramar.

They ended their 17-year existence on a high by beating their old rivals in the Grand Final of 2021, coming from behind to reverse Auckland City’s 2-0 lead and lift the last summer-centric domestic trophy. With the introduction of winter’s New Zealand National League later in 2021, Team Wellington broke up and their players headed to various clubs in the Central League division.

These include Wellington Olympic, formed by Greek immigrants in 1953 and based at Wakefield Park near the old Athletic Park, and still prominent Miramar Rangers. The top three of the Central region qualify for the Championship phase, along with the Wellington Phoenix reserve side, granted an automatic berth.

n Wellington’s patchwork yet passionate soccer scene, The Nix are a real success story, despite the wobble following the demise of original owner Terry Serepisos. Yellow Fever fans stand, bounce, shout and strip down to their waist at boisterous home games, and take a pro-active stance in many areas off the pitch. 

The team’s post-pandemic return to Sky Stadium in May 2021 attracted 24,000 back to The Cake Tin, as it is also referred to, after weeks of relocated home games in Wollongong, way past Sydney towards Canberra.

The year was also notable as Wellington Phoenix founded a women’s team, now competing, like the men, as New Zealand’s only representatives in the A-League. While wins have proved hard to come by, the move is another much-needed step for the ladies’ game here. Of New Zealand’s 23-player squad for the Women’s World Cup in 2023, only four are home-based.

Wellington’s Fan Festival for the Women’s World Cup is at Shed 6 on the waterfront.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Wellington Airport 7.5km (4.5 miles) south-east of town mainly serves domestic services and flights with Australia. An Airport Express AX bus runs every 10-20mins to Wellington station, journey time 30mins. It sets off from the AX stop near Door G outside the terminal. From town, it leaves from Stop B at Lambton Quay/Bunny Street. It also calls at six stops through Wellington’s Central Business District, CBD – the station is the closest to the stadium.

Payment is by Snapper top-up card (NZ$10 immediate upload, AX bus fare NZ$4) cash or card (NZ$5). Snapper Cards are sold at the Wishbone store on level 1 of the airport terminal, and at convenience stores around town – look out for the red fish sign. Touch out before you alight otherwise the full fare will be charged.

An Explorer day pass is NZ$5.50 for Zones 1-3 with a Snapper – again, always touch out. Metlink public transport mainly consists of buses and trains – you can only pay contactless on the Airport Express AX bus, otherwise it’s by Snapper or cash only. There are no ticket offices or machines. Ferries and the Cable Car have a different pricing system.

For the Women’s World Cup, match-ticket holders can ride local buses and trains for free on the day itself.

From the airport, a taxi should cost around NZ$50 into town – Wellington Combined (+64 4 384 4444) is one of several authorised to offer transfers.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for soccer fans

The waterfront and main Willis Street parallel to it are the key locations for barhopping, and also popular stop-offs to and from the stadium. Overlooking the harbour, the Foxglove, set within a pretty, two-floor building on Queen’s Wharf, is unashamedly upscale in its cuisine – think oysters and truffle spaghetti – but isn’t afraid to put on comedy or ‘80s’ themed nights. No TV sport but you’ll be focused on the view in any case. 

Alongside, Bin44 has pretty much the same approach, complementing great views with fine fare, but here they’re not afraid to serve pizzas and burgers, and positively revel in their selection of craft beer. Nearly two-dozen brews are poured by the pint, currently including Hatsukoi Japanese rice beer, Octopus Clamp Dark Lager and Yeehaw Farmhouse Lager, all domestically produced.

Mac’s Bar, now at Shed 22 shows sport on a big screen while serving mid-priced craft beer and popular bar food in more offbeat surroundings. A location by the Te Papa museum means plenty of footfall from tourists, happy to find a waterfront table, too.

On Willis Street, the top spot is The Malthouse, a Wellington institution and its first proper craft beer bar, now back at its original location of 30-plus years ago. The building was once Wellington’s first and finest hotel, The Barrett’s, opened in 1910. Today, twenty taps keep hopheads happy and coming back to try out new brews in an industrial-style interior.

Mention must be made of the 12 Pubs of Lochhead, an annual pre-Christmas bar crawl undertaken in bright yellow by supporters of The Nix. Towards the end of their first post-pandemic caper in 2022, the Four Kings sports bar welcomed the weary imbibers to its screen-filled establishment on Dixon Street, where you can book a booth for a particular match.

Also on the list was the Green Man, Wellington’s traditional Irish pub, where TV sport gets a look-in amid the live music and hearty fare. Picking up the ball and running with it, D4 on Featherston is a next-generation Celtic hostelry overseen by Dermot Murphy, who has brought the upscale Southside touch of his Dublin home to Wellington Central, underscored by warm hospitality and live sport – Dublin 4 is where you find the Aviva Stadium.