It had been mere minutes before the kickoff of the opening game of the 2023 Women’s World Cup in which an incredible opening ceremony was held, steeped in Māori culture, including a welcoming dance. The intent was peace and friendliness obviously, but once the match got underway, it was clear that the Football Ferns of Aotearoa New Zealand took no prisoners against Norway, edging them by a score of 1-0 at Eden Park in Auckland/Tāmaki Makaurau. Immense joy swept through the stadium as the whistle blew, and the elation eased some of the tensions and sadness felt just a few hours earlier.
Yes, nerves were certainly felt by the co-hosts late on, Ria Percival’s missed penalty would be sure to do that, but the sheer ecstasy and roar of the spectators’ thanks to Hannah Wilkinson’s goal minutes into the second half lingered through the night. That goal was maybe the one moment when everything the Ferns were trying to do on offence came together. A great run on the right flank by Jacqui Hand and subsequent cross, met by Wilkinson and her perfectly-timed run into the box. They had to hold down the fort for the remaining 30 minutes plus nine added on. Though at that moment, when the ball struck the net and the faces of Norway’s backline were shocked, you could feel that this was their moment. Having never recorded a World Cup finals win, it had to come. In front of the biggest crowd to ever witness any football match on the islands, the Ferns showed the brightest lights and the biggest stages had no wear and tear on their performance.
‘Holding down the fort’ might be a generous phrase to describe this showing. Despite being at home, there was certainly a siege mentality. Attacking every ball like it was their last chance, swarming Norwegian midfielders until they had given up the ball, and creating a number of more opportunities for themselves in the final third (eight corners), it was clear who wanted it more. Norway are coming off of one the country’s most disappointing performances in football at last year’s European Championships and had nothing to prove that they’ve changed. Caroline Graeme Hansen and Ada Hegerberg are two of the world’s best attacking talents, but they were nearly radio silent. Of course, much credit goes to both fullbacks, Ali Riley and CJ Bott, for their efforts on both ends of the pitch.
Riley, the captain, was so dedicated, as she always is for club and country. Aside from one slip-up in transition, she didn’t have any standout errors. Even then, she got back up and helped hold back Graeme Hansen from entering dangerous territory. She totalled three tackles and one interception, going nicely alongside Bott’s seven tackles and three interceptions on the reverse flank (stats via SofaScore). In tears after the match, Riley showed that she is what New Zealanders will be rallying around for this tournament, and who they will look up to. She is from Los Angeles, but always kept going back because most of her family is from there. It does seem that despite the smaller relation to the country, she carries a lot of national pride.
There was also an aura of disbelief coming off her post-match. “I can’t [sum it up], we’ve been fighting for this for so, so long, and we had a clear goal that we wanted to inspire young girls, young people around the country and around the world, and I think we did that tonight.
“I think there have been a lot of doubters because of some of the recent results we’ve had, but we believed. We believed in ourselves this entire game… and we showed it, we showed it with confidence, and with poise. Vic [goalkeeper Victoria Esson] was incredible, the defending was incredible, the finish, I mean, this is what dreams are made of.”
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Riley talks about poise and confidence, and really, that was demonstrated more than anything. The high press they instilled was always going to be risky, Norway’s midfield led by Guro Reiten is phenomenal. Any giveaway with numbers up could’ve been fatal. That didn’t happen, and it was no matter of luck, the Football Ferns were simply calculated in their pressure and moved quickly.
Their defence let up a couple of times down the middle, but both Reiten and Frida Maanum missed massive chances inside the 18-yard box coming out of midfield. They both hit the ball wide from places where anyone would have to get the ball at least on target. The Norwegians, in their amplified late pressure, hit the crossbar. Really, it ended sort of like an eye-for-an-eye game chances-wise, because there was an instance in the second half where Indiah-Paige Riley was sensationally denied by Aurora Mikalsen. Off the wings was undoubtedly where Norway struggled to contain New Zealand the most.
When their striker was changed by Jitka Klimkova, some wind was taken out of the Fern’s sails because Wilkinson had provided some narrow but perfectly-timed runs and was linking up exceptionally.
The crowd, then, took it into their own hands and it was the thing that pushed them on. Eden Park is typically known as a hallowed rugby ground but as Tāmaki Makaurau and a whole nation willed its team to victory, maybe the tide will start to turn.
“Yeah, the energy helped us get through it,” Riley added, “and, you know, this morning something really really tragic happened, and we wanted to bring something positive tonight; we thought of the victims and the first responders, and they made us so proud, we just wanted to help bring something amazing today.”
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