Football Ferns legend: ‘I was told I might not play again’

Ria Percival dribbling a football on the pitch.

The Football Ferns are on the cusp of the biggest moment in their careers – a FIFA World Cup at home. Their most experienced player, Ria Percival, has fought back from the worst injury of her career to help their chances.

Ria Percival is sitting in a doctor’s surgery in North London, and she can’t believe what she is hearing.

It’s April last year and the Football Ferns midfielder had flown home after a devastating moment against Australia in Townsville.

In a tackle, Ria heard a pop noise and felt something go in her knee. She was writhing in pain and her first thought was she would miss the chance of a lifetime – to play a World Cup at home. 

The MRI scans the following day showed Ria had ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tendon and damaged her meniscus.

The worst was still to come when she got the prognosis from the surgeon in London.

“He said he’d never seen a meniscus that badly damaged before and he wasn’t sure he could fix it,” says the 33-year-old.

If the surgeon couldn’t fix it, then Ria would need a meniscus transplant in three months. It would have ruled her out of the World Cup and jeopardised her career. 

“He said: ‘I’m not sure where this will leave you and if you will ever play again’.” 

Ria’s mind was racing. The doctor continued talking but it all faded into the background like white noise.

“Hearing just how bad my injury was, was a massive shock to the system.”

After the meeting, Ria called her Spurs physio and broke down in tears.

“Football is my life and to hear that I could potentially never play again, that was devastating.”

But the surgeon gave it a go and, in the end, worked wonders. He repaired the meniscus and ACL tendon. The first step of her comeback was complete and there was hope.

Ria playing football for the NZ Ferns.

Ria playing for the Football Ferns. Photo credit Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

The long road to recovery

It took Ria 12 months to fully recover from her injury.

Following her surgery, she couldn’t weight-bear for 12 weeks.

Ria was on crutches and totally reliant on others to get by in everyday life. She didn’t have a flatmate and tried to work out a system to be independent at home.

“I would skateboard my food, drinks and ice around the house,” she laughs at the memory.  

Ria couldn’t bend her leg past a range from 60 – 90 degrees and everything was hard.

“It was in that time when I thought: ‘I’m not going to be able to do this. I didn’t know if I was ever going to be the same player again’.”

Ria took her recovery one step at a time – literally.

She learnt how to walk again. The Essex-born player was the first person in the Spurs gym in the morning and the last to leave in the evening as she fully committed to her rehab.

“I had to fight to stay positive and focused on what I could control each day. Having the support of friends and family was massive. It got me through it and kept me thinking about the World Cup.”

Ria and her parents.

Ria with her parents Ray and Dawn Percival. Photo credit Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

One of the highlights of my career

Ria has experienced more than most in her illustrious career.

She has been to four Olympic Games, and this will be her fifth World Cup. She has played more than 160 internationals for her New Zealand since making her debut back in 2006. The most of any player (male or female).

She is the only New Zealander to have played in a FA Cup Final at Wembley and the only New Zealander to have played in a Champions League Final.

She rates her comeback – or more specifically the moment when she finally got back on the pitch to train with the girls – as one of the highlights of her career.

“After such a serious injury and having doubt around whether I would play again, to be back was unbelievable,” she says.

Ria walked onto the pitch and all of her Spurs’ team-mates stopped. They cheered and clapped the New Zealander as she walked onto the field.

“It was an emotional moment,” she says. “I couldn’t have been happier.”

Ria on the pitch dribbling a ball.

Ria playing for the Football Ferns. Photo credit Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

“We’ve lost our identity”

Ria says one of the hardest parts of her rehabilitation was watching the Football Ferns from the other side of the world and being unable to help the team.

The Jitka Klimkova-coached team have struggled in the lead up to the World Cup – they have lost eight out of their past 10 internationals. Ria says they need to regroup.

“We need to get back to what we used to be,” says the veteran, who has earned the right for an honest opinion.  

“We used to be hard to beat, we didn’t concede many goals because we put our bodies on the line and we worked hard for each other. We had grit.

“We have lost our identity in the last few years. We have some young players who are now making a difference. We have three tough games. We know we have a lot of work to do in becoming more connected as a team.”

Ria says the team has to take advantage of this opportunity.  

“We’ve got to get out of the group. We have to make history. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we want to get that reward for all of the years of commitment to the team.

“This is our chance to inspire the next generation of girls around New Zealand.”

Ria with the NZ Olympics Squad.

Ria with the team as they were named for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo credit Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

“Your body is your temple”

Ria wants to inspire the next generation with not only performance but injury prevention.

“I know from my experience, the cost of a serious injury is huge.”

In 2022, ACC accepted nearly 40,000 claims for football-related injuries.

A review of ACL reconstructions saw the greatest increase in females aged 15-19 years, with the rate of reconstructions increasing by 120 percent between 2009 – 2019.

“It is so important to listen to your body,” says Ria. 

“Too often we try to push through things and don’t listen to our bodies. Your body is your temple. You need to look after it so you can perform and play the game for a long time."

Ria and the Ferns perform the 11+ warm up every time they train and play.

To help prevent injuries, ACC partners with New Zealand Football to deliver the NZF Performance and Prevention programme.

“There are some unique female-specific considerations when it comes to reducing the risk of injury in sport,” says ACC injury prevention partner Nat Hardaker says.

“We work with NZ Football to ensure injury prevention is an integral part of the game here. This is critical as it means we can support everyone to keep playing and maximise their enjoyment of the game.

“The 11+ warm up is an evidence-based programme designed to prepare players for the demands of the game. It includes exercises that really target strength and control of the lower limbs.”

Ria has completed a remarkable comeback. She is ready to help the Ferns to make history.  

Make sure every time you take the pitch you are physically and mentally ready for that challenge.
- Football Ferns defensive midfielder Ria Percival

What is the NZF Performance and Prevention programme?

  • It is a player welfare and prevention programme for our everyday athletes.
  • It provides support mechanisms for enhancing player performance, injury prevention, and wellbeing.
  • The 11+ warm up is an evidence-based programme designed to prepare players for the demands of the game. It includes exercises that target strength and control of the lower limbs.

Find out more here:

Football Ferns’ upcoming fixtures at FIFA Women's World Cup

 July 20, 7pm: NZ v Norway; Eden Park, Auckland

July 25, 5.30pm: NZ v Philippines; Wellington Regional Stadium

July 30, 7pm: NZ v Switzerland; Dunedin Stadium