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Hannah Wilkinson celebrates the first goal of the Fifa Women’s World Cup. Photo by Hannah Peters – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
Hannah Wilkinson celebrates the first goal of the Fifa Women’s World Cup. Photo by Hannah Peters – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

SportsJuly 21, 2023

A historic moment for New Zealand sport, an emotional night for Auckland

Hannah Wilkinson celebrates the first goal of the Fifa Women’s World Cup. Photo by Hannah Peters – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
Hannah Wilkinson celebrates the first goal of the Fifa Women’s World Cup. Photo by Hannah Peters – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Toby Manhire reports from Eden Park, as the opening match of the Women’s World Cup serves up extraordinary scenes. 

Before last night, the biggest crowd the Football Ferns had played in front of was a few hundred shy of 13,000. It was back in January, and the opponents at Eden Park were the all-conquering USA, who won by 5-0. The scoreline flattered New Zealand. The Ferns looked flat, disjointed, free of ideas. I don’t remember them mustering a single shot on goal. It was so boring I felt the need to apologise to the friends I’d dragged along to the ground.

Six months later, the World Cup kicked off on the same pitch and another planet. The Ferns had some important changes in personnel, yes, but it was more than that. In defeating Norway, a side ranked 12th in the world, a vertiginous 14 places above them, New Zealand appeared to have a completely different personality. 

Before last night, no game of football in New Zealand had been attended by more than 40,000 people. Running out in the opening game of the World Cup to the exhilarating roars of 42,000, you’d forgive the Ferns for a nervy start. The nerves in the stands were palpable. But none of that for them. And it wasn’t that febrile energy you sometimes get from an underdog New Zealand team, either. Slick passing, crisp patterns, pace, composure; an immediate sense that each of the 11 knew precisely their role. 

Fireworks at the culmination of the Fifa Women’s World Cup opening ceremony. Photo: Toby Manhire

The Ferns had the best of the opening exchanges, but the Norwegians won the first gasp. Seven minutes in, Ada Hegerberg launched an audacious bicycle kick. A prodigious goal scorer, a superstar of the game, Hegerberg has returned to her national side after missing the 2019 World Cup in protest at the way women’s football was treated by the national federation. Four years on, with audiences for the game surging ahead of the World Cup here and across the Tasman, questions around a lack of parity are still in the foreground, most visibly in Australia’s Matildas – who defeated Ireland 1-0 in the opening night’s second game – releasing a video highlighting Fifa’s decision to pay women a quarter of the prize money given to men. 

Before last night, New Zealand senior national sides, women and men, in the world’s most popular sport had played 21 games in seven World Cup tournaments across 42 years. Total wins: nil. Not any more. Forty two years, 42,000 people: Douglas Adams proved right again on the meaning of life

New Zealand had the better of an intense, entertaining and scoreless first half, but it took just a few minutes to end the deadlock after the break. Indiah-Paige Riley and Jacqui Hand had tormented Norway down the right all night long and the goal was bound to arrive through that channel. 

Friendly Norway fans. Photo: Toby Manhire

It took 11 seconds from one end to the other. Katie Bowen, immense in defence alongside Rebekah Stott, stepped in to take a goal kick. The ball landed with precision at the feet of CJ Bott near the halfway line. A one-touch lay-off to Riley was met with another, exquisite touch, threading the ball to Hand, who charged towards the box, holding off a defender and crossing a ball coated in chef’s kisses to Hannah Wilkinson. Surging to the six-yard box in her 116th game for the Ferns, Wilkinson side-footed into the net as if it was the most straightforward thing in the world, as if there weren’t 42-something-thousand people lurching forwards, hearts in mouth.

The game was won as much, however, in extinguishing the fuse of the opposition. Staunching the flow through what should be a formidable midfield. Picking Norwegian pockets. An opening ceremony that mixed kapa haka, giant football duvets hauled by figures in hi-vis parkas and an eerie remix of ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ must have planted some potent force in the Eden Park centre circle, so often did the Norwegians slice at heels and shove the shirts of their rivals. 

Poi. Photo: Toby Manhire

It was a tremendous occasion and a long, horrible day in Tāmaki Makaurau. The flags atop Eden Park flew at half mast, and a moment’s silence was observed after the national anthems, to honour the lives taken less than 12 hours earlier, when a young man launched an unspeakable attack in a Queen Street workplace. 

July 20 2023 will go down as a grievous, lamentable day for the city, and a game of football is trivial beside it. And still, in moments, when 42,137 people and countless others beyond are a thousand feet high on something so daft as a ball game, there is something there. You see flickers of that strange, defiant, joyful, ineffable stuff of life. 

Ferns veteran Ria Percival had a chance to extend the lead to two and make it done when a penalty was awarded on 88 minutes for a handball just inside the box. It required a check by VAR – or “the TMO” as the bloke in front of me confidently advised his companion – to make the call, and the referee announced the verdict over the stadium soundsystem. “The decision is,” she said, pausing for dramatic effect, “penalty!” prompting one of the night’s biggest cheers. 

The Football Ferns, peppered with the prime minster, Chris Hipkins, his predecessor Jacinda Ardern, and sports minister Grant Robertson, celebrate victory in the opening game of the Fifa World Cup. Photo by Hannah Peters – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Percival, who had scuffed a decent chance 10 minutes earlier but also made several hundred tackles, hit the bar, and a moment later the officials declared there would be nine – nine! – agonising minutes of added time. The nerves were suddenly everywhere. The Ferns began to hesitate, hover, stare accusingly at the ball. Finally, the whistle went, and it was bedlam.  

Before last night, no senior New Zealand side, men or women, had reached the knockout stages of a World Cup. As Jitka Klimková will remind her team today, they still haven’t. The Ferns need a point, maybe points, from games against the Philippines (ranked 46th in the world) and Switzerland (20th) to be sure of making that bit of history. 

But they’ve made some already, as has a sporting public maligned for a sluggish start to World Cup fever. Last night, just like the last time New Zealand’s biggest stadium was full for sport, when the Black Ferns pipped the English to win the rugby world cup, the crowd leapt jubilant to their feet, a sea of hands, flags and Fifa-approved poi, witness to another moment of euphoria. And maybe, hopefully, they gave us another echo, another watershed moment in New Zealand sport.

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