Some of the biggest stars in football will be in New Zealand come July. This week’s Football Ferns friendlies against the world champion USA are just a hint of what we can expect.
We were into the second half and still no goals for either team. The home crowd at Wellington’s Sky Stadium was optimistic. The Football Ferns were holding their own against the world’s best football team. What if they could beat USA, the world champions?
But it wasn’t to be. In the 52nd minute, USA forward Mallory Swanson powered a header into the net decisively to end the deadlock and open the floodgates. In the next 11 minutes, the Americans slotted in three more goals to clinch a 4-0 victory over the Football Ferns.
This was the first time ever the US national women’s team had played in Aotearoa. More than 12,000 people piled into the stadium for the 4pm Wednesday kickoff, a record home crowd for the Football Ferns.
For much of the match it felt like one-way traffic, with the USA always storming forward, but the local crowd far from disheartened. The Football Ferns were showered in applause each time they fended off an attack by the star-studded American side.
The match – one of two games against USA this week, the second at Eden Park on Saturday – delivered just a tiny preview of what’s to come in July and August when New Zealand and Australia co-host the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Domination from the outset
The Americans are the two-time defending World Cup champions, and ranked number one heading into this year’s tournament.
Of the 20 times the Football Ferns have played the USA, New Zealand has triumphed only once and that was more than three decades ago. Since that first encounter in 1987 in Taipei, it’s been a 19-game unbeaten streak for the USA.
This week’s friendlies are taking place outside the international window during which football clubs are obliged to release their players for national duty. That means the Football Ferns were without 13 of their regular top players who have club commitments. In contrast, the Americans fielded an almost full-strength squad, with the notable absence of superstar Megan Rapinoe due to injury.
It was speculated to be primarily a warm-up game for the world champions and a chance for US players and coaches to familiarise themselves with New Zealand’s playing conditions ahead of the World Cup.
Big names are coming
Ranked 24th in the world, the Football Ferns are long shots to win the World Cup. But the focus for New Zealand fans shouldn’t simply be on winning. It’s about seeing the world’s best female footballers in action at a pivotal moment for the sport.
USA star forwards Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan will be based in Auckland. They’re genuine global celebrities, starring in television commercials, talk shows and music videos, with social media followings in the millions. Their faces appear on 10-story-high billboards in New York’s Time Square and they get invited to the Met Gala.
Not to mention Alexis Putellas, who will be joining the Spanish squad in Palmerston North. Dubbed “La Reina” (The Queen) by her millions of fans, two years in a row Putellas has won the Women’s Ballon d’Or, the most prestigious award in women’s football.
A sports tournament on a scale never before seen in New Zealand
The FIFA Women’s World Cup will be larger than any men’s rugby or cricket World Cup hosted here.
To give you an idea, the total television viewership of the last World Cup in France in 2019 reached 1.12 billion viewers, 250 million more than the men’s rugby world cup that same year.
Reinforcing the popularity of women’s football, a record-breaking 365 million people around the world tuned in to watch England defeat Germany 2-1 in the 2022 women’s UEFA European Championship final. Wembley, England’s largest stadium, was packed with a staggering 87,200 fans. Just last weekend, 46,500 fans packed Emirates stadium as Arsenal hosted Chelsea in the Women’s Super League.
Women’s soccer is enormous in the USA, too. There are over a million registered female soccer players and the Women’s National Soccer League saw sold-out stadiums of 32,000 last season. It’s on a scale unseen in New Zealand, where even a top National League final may attract only 1,000 people.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and tickets will never be this cheap again
An adult ticket to the Auckland semi-final is currently priced at just $30, a fraction of the recent Qatar World Cup’s $500 for the same level of seating. Women’s football is rapidly growing, and soon you won’t be able to watch a World Cup match anywhere near as cheaply.
But why wait until July?
On January 21, the Football Ferns take on the USA for the second time, at Eden Park. The match promises the same top-level women’s football experienced in Wellington. If you’re in Auckland, head along and get a taste of what’s coming in just a few months.