Culture and competition will go hand in hand for Moerewa 12-year-old Shakeal Pickering when he takes the field for the New Zealand Māori under-14 boys' football team in Papakura today.
Shakeal (Ngāpuhi/Ngāti Hine) is the only Northland-based player selected for the 14-man squad to take on an under-14 Australian indigenous team at McLennan Park at the annual Clash of the Cultures, which will also feature under-14 girls', senior men's and women's teams.
The Paihia Football Club prodigy, who has spent the week in camp at the event, is a seventh generation descendant of prominent Māori rangatira Te Ruki Kawiti and says he hopes to do his whānau proud on the national stage.
"It's a big honour for me to play down there and play against a team from a different country," Shakeal said.
"I reckon it's an honour to represent my family down there."
In addition to his team in Paihia, Shakeal attended Northland talent centre trainings in Waipapa last year, as well as taking part in a number of Northland FC trainings in Whangārei.
However, Shakeal's potential in the sport originated primarily from his mum, Jennifer, who has coached him since he was 4, something Shakeal said he both thrived on and struggled with.
"If you don't do something right with mum, then it's straight up press-ups, 10 or 20 at least," he said.
While she could only laugh when asked about her coaching methods, Jennifer said her son's football journey started in the womb when she was playing for Waikato University while carrying Shakeal.
"We were pretty much just waiting until he turned the age that we can start," she said.
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"He's always been really into being active and coming from that background myself, I've been quite encouraging and wanting him to do his very best."
Jennifer, a former Northland age-group representative, said she was thrilled to see Shakeal reach the next level in the sport while embracing his culture.
"We just love the philosophy about it being Kaupapa Māori, the boys have to say their pepeha (introduction) confidently which is really cool.
"It's more than just football, it's the whole package with the culture which is awesome."
Shakeal, who also played league at a representative level, would often face trainings four out of five weekdays with football games on Saturday and league games on Sunday.
While living in Moerewa certainly provided its challenges, Jennifer was adamant it would not hold the family of five back from chasing their dreams.
"We do a lot of travel, but it keeps us busy and it's positive for our children.
"It can be a little bit crazy but as a family, we just want him to have as many opportunities as possible."
Jennifer was also breaking ground as a key instigator for the inaugural Paihia Football Club senior women's team which will play this year, a first for the club in more than 30 years.
With a bright future hopefully in store for Shakeal, Jennifer hopes her son will take the lessons from growing up in Northland and use them in a future career.
"I think that's what fills my cup, it's seeing the kids that are just so keen to play and the family atmosphere we get from it," she said.
"For [Shakeal], it's been good for him because he's been able to get more of a leadership role in helping those around him."