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Yumi, kneeling at left, and current Football Fern Annalie Longo, kneeling second from right, out with some of the Japan players in the 2023 Women’s Football World Cup.

Former New Zealand rep Yumi Nguyen hadn’t spoken Japanese much in the past five year – until the Japan women’s football team arrived for the World Cup.

Police Association member Yumi Nguyen spoke only Japanese at home until her father Sang’s death five years ago. “My dad was the last line of speaking Japanese regularly,” says Yumi.

Her mother, Yuko, died of cancer when Yumi was 15 and her two siblings, who also speak Japanese, had moved from Wellington to London.

“Growing up, I found it quite annoying at times when we were forced to always use Japanese,” Yumi says. Now she is grateful her heritage and her parents’ house rule opened the door to a rare opportunity – Yumi was selected as the Japanese contingent’s team security liaison officer (TSLO) for the 2023 Women’s Football World Cup.

“I spoke Japanese for 28 days straight [during the tournament]. It's been a really long time since I've done that. It was really good for me to reconnect with that side of my heritage… I think my mum would be really, really proud.”

The 32-year-old who works in Iwi and Communities was one of 16 TSLOs – the football teams based in New Zealand each had a dedicated New Zealand Police member assigned to them for as long as they lasted in the World Cup. Selection criteria included involvement in highperformance or elite sport, cultural and
language competency, strong emotional intelligence and good analytical skills.

Yumi is passionate about football and women’s sport so leapt at the opportunity when she discovered Police employees were able to apply – TSLO roles for big sporting events were previously only open to sworn staff.

“As Police employees, there aren't always as many secondments or professional development opportunities. So having this as something that we can apply for was really awesome. As a non-sworn, I'm always looking to expand on my knowledge and understanding of operational policing,” Yumi says.

Frontline as a TSLO

Yumi says the role of TSLO is a busy one and preparation was key. Training included sessions on behavioural analysis and threat and risk assessments. Intelligence on people who might pose a risk to the teams was also shared with the group. That information came in handy for Yumi.

“I did actually identify one person. I had memorised the face. [The Japan players] were leaving for the airport exactly as he was walking that way so I alerted security and the hotel. I also told the next team – I think it was Spain moving into the hotel – that they may need to deal with this person. And then [Police] staff also came along and dealt with it.”

Yumi also had to reassure the Japanese contingent after the Auckland shooting on July 20, when three people died and a police officer was badly injured. “We were in Christchurch at the time. I wanted to inform the team before they got calls or texts from Japan asking if they're OK. I messaged the staff and the team manager telling them it was a one-off incident. I had to reassure them without too much detail. They were asking, ‘Do people just have guns in New Zealand?’. I told them, ‘No, people aren't just walking around with guns. Even police, we don't walk around with guns’.”

Despite being exhausted at the end of Japan’s run at the tournament (they lost 2-1 to Sweden in the quarterfinals), Yumi loved every minute. “It's such a positive, exciting and happy space to be in that you don't feel like you are working all the time.”

Blossoming career

Yumi’s football “career” began when she was 8, playing for Onslow Junior Soccer Club in Wellington. “I actually used to not enjoy it at all. I used to sit on the field and pick flowers.”

But coaches saw she had football potential. At age 9, she made the Wellington under-13 team and later went on to play for Miramar Rangers and Wellington Girls’ College – winning three national secondary school titles.

In 2008, the midfielder/defender moved to Auckland after being selected for the Young Ferns and played in the Under-17 Women’s World Cup. Later, she took up a four-year football scholarship at Colorado College in the United States. She returned to New Zealand in 2016 and began working for Police in early 2021.

She admits she was a little hesitant about being around international football again at this year’s World Cup. “It's been a really long time. I was wondering how it was going to go but I haven't felt that comfortable in a really long time. Also, I think it was really helpful to the team once they realised that I'd been in the environment – that they didn't need to tell me when’s appropriate to speak up, when to be here and there and that I have an appreciation of what their focus areas are. I loved being in that environment again.

“I think every one of the 16 primary TSLOs had a very different experience in terms of how inclusive or non-inclusive their team was towards them. I was really lucky. They treated me like one of their own and included me in everything. It is a big part of Japanese culture but I think it certainly helped that I am part Japanese and that I can speak the language.”

Asked if she would apply for a TSLO role again, she said she would but “as much as I'd like to be involved in future campaigns, I also think it's good for other people to have an opportunity”.

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