The days of NZ's biggest global party are almost over - and stadium chiefs' grandest dreams have already been met, writes Merryn Anderson
The FIFA Women’s World Cup is drawing to a close here in Aotearoa, with only one more game on home soil left.
With yesterday's exciting NZ-based quarterfinals seeing Sweden edge Japan 2-1 at Eden Park and Spain oust the Netherlands from the tournament by the same score in Wellington, the NZ World Cup experience now comes down to its last game - the semifinal in Auckland next Tuesday night between those two winning sides.
Between Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Dunedin, the country has seen some of the top teams in world football play in our stadiums across 29 games.
Over half a million tickets have been sold for the NZ games, with that one semifinal at Eden Park being left to play.
For some of the staff working at New Zealand stadiums, it’s been a long journey to be prepared for such a large global event.
Nick Sautner, CEO of Eden Park, says one of the biggest challenges was making sure the grounds were ready after the Auckland floods earlier this year.
“Our team committed to ensuring the venue was ready to host the nine FIFA Women’s World Cup fixtures, but also complete the necessary venue upgrades to meet FIFA requirements,” he explains.
Eden Park isn’t often used for football, the main sporting events they hold being cricket and rugby. So the grounds staff had the challenge of meeting the high FIFA standards for their pitch.
“Our turf management team has raised the bar in terms of field presentation and preparation,” Sautner says.
CEO of Wellington’s Sky Stadium, Shane Harmon, admits it was a tough and long journey.
“The FIFA standards, requirements and protocols have added a new layer of complexity but the team has risen to the challenge,” he says.
“Across the board the standards for FIFA were really high and understandably so. The weeks leading in were extremely busy and stretched our team, but the end result has been worth it. We’ve also gotten better operationally with each match we’ve delivered.”
Eden Park has had over 250,000 spectators attend World Cup games, with a record NZ crowd equalled again last night with 43,217 and a similar crowd expected for the semifinal.
Around 80 percent of the ticket sales for Eden Park have been to Kiwis, with almost 12 percent being from the United States.
“A highlight of the tournament has seen a diverse range of cultures attending the venue, many of whom will have never experienced the stadium before,” Sautner says.
“The atmosphere at Eden Park has been electric, with colour and culture celebrated through the beautiful game.”
Kiwis have mingled with international visitors, and there’s been a range of supporters and neutral fans packing venues for every match.
Harmon says: “I was in the stands when Japan scored their third goal in the round of 16 match, and it may as well have been New Zealand playing given the roar from the crowd.
“The fans have been fantastic.”
For both Eden Park and Wellington’s Sky Stadium, one of the biggest challenges was the volume of games played in such a short period.
Harmon is proud of how the Sky Stadium team managed to keep their pitch at a high quality over multiple games.
“Our biggest challenge was turning the venue around to be ready for matches in quick succession. Our staff did a fantastic job in achieving that,” he says.
Wellington hosted nine games across 22 days, seven of those being within a two week period.
Sky Stadium averaged around 26,000 fans per match, with over 230,000 fans entering the venue.
Harmon says it was a “phenomenal result.”
“It seemed like a distant dream in the dark days of Covid.
“Any concerns prior to the tournament about whether Kiwis would get behind this event in sufficient numbers have been firmly put to rest. I was always confident, but the end result across the country has exceeded even my own expectations.”
Eden Park hosted games in the three women's World Cups in NZ - the Cricket World Cup, Rugby World Cup and now the FIFA World Cup over an 18-month period - the only venue in New Zealand to play host to all three.
“In line with our three-year strategic plan, Eden Park Trust has been committed to gender equality and inclusion in sport,” says Sautner.
“Only five years ago, when the central government’s Women in Sport strategy was launched by Jacinda Ardern at Eden Park, many commentators referred to women’s sporting fixtures as curtain-raisers.”
“Now, who could ever forget the Rugby World Cup final performance by the Black Ferns and Ruby Tui’s rendition of Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi or Hannah Wilkinson’s goal to win the opening match for the Football Ferns at Eden Park?”
Women’s football matches in New Zealand have generally been held at smaller venues, with stadiums like Eden Park often reserved for the All Blacks.
But with four Auckland games having over 42,000 attendees (42,137 at NZ vs Norway, 42,958 at USA vs Portugal and a record 43,217 at Switzerland vs Spain and last night's Sweden vs Japan), Sautner is confident New Zealand’s biggest stadium can host more football games in the future.
“Eden Park is known as the spiritual home and fortress of the All Blacks and Black Ferns, the venue of many memorable cricketing moments, and now is globally recognised as a fit-for-purpose football facility in markets across the world,” he says.
“There is no question New Zealanders have been starved of football content and we look forward to welcoming more sell-out crowds for football matches, including both men’s and women’s internationals and friendlies with leading European teams.”
*Australia take on France in their quarterfinal at 6.30pm tonight, live on Sky Sport 1, followed by the last quarterfinal between England and Colombia at 10pm.