It all starts now: The Football Ferns walk onto Eden Park tonight with one common, but simple, goal - a history-changing win to kick-off the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Mere months ago, belief that the Football Ferns would change their fate and claim their first win at a World Cup was at an all-time low.
Slumping to their lowest world ranking (26th), a goalless streak of almost five months, and winless for over 10 months, the chances of the Ferns making history by winning a World Cup match didn’t look promising.
But buoyed by an almost sell-out crowd and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a World Cup at home, the Football Ferns will walk out onto Auckland’s Eden Park tonight in the opening clash against Norway (ranked 12th) fizzing to make history.
Football Ferns co-captain Ali Riley knows the power that comes from a legion of home fans. She was a kid at the 1999 Women’s World Cup final in California (her home state), where the United States won in front of more than 90,000 people.
“For us, having the crowd behind us will help us, absolutely,” says Riley, about to appear in her fifth World Cup.
“I know what that did for me as a young girl, and so to have people here, the noise, that will give us energy. But also I know what that can do for any little girl seeing these players, these awesome, confident, empowered women and athletes just living their dreams.”
For the past nine weeks, the Football Ferns have been together in camp - a rarity in their football careers. Before then, it wasn’t a build-up to be for which they could be particularly proud.
Two heavy losses to the US in January - conceding nine goals, without scoring - were fairly predictable. Played outside the FIFA window, New Zealand were without some of their key players and up against the world number one.
The real low was a 5-0 loss to Portugal in February, a game where they should’ve been competitive. Two losses to Argentina followed.
But the first signs of life in the Ferns side came in April, when Hannah Wilkinson broke the scoring drought in a 1-1 draw against Iceland in Turkey - the side’s first goal in six games.
They still couldn’t find that elusive win though, even against opponents ranked well below them, losing 3-0 to Nigeria four days after.
And then came the Ferns’ final public game before the World Cup. If they couldn’t score against Vietnam (world number 32), their hopes of advancing to the knockout stages were slim.
In front of 6215 engaged and passionate fans in Napier, the Ferns looked the stronger team from the get-go. A goal in the 17th minute from CJ Bott and a second in the 44th from Jacqui Hand was enough to give them their first win since September.
The second half was scoreless, so the Ferns will need to rectify that, and keep up the intensity for the full 90 minutes in all their pool matches.
The returns of centurions Ria Percival and Annalie Longo from ACL injuries were a boost for the Ferns, especially Percival, who wore the captain’s armband for the game against Vietnam.
In just her eighth cap, Indiah-Paige Riley was instrumental on attack, creating several chances and setting Jacqui Hand up for her goal.
At the World Cup, the top two teams in each group of four make it out of pool play, so if the Football Ferns win at least one game at this World Cup, it could be enough to make it out of the group stage for the first time and onto the rounds of 16.
New Zealand’s second match, on Tuesday against the Philippines (world number 46) will be the Ferns’ best chance for a win. Their final group stage match is five days later, against Switzerland, who are ranked 20th.
Norway is arguably their toughest match of the tournament. They are ranked 12th, and beat the Ferns 2-0 in June last year, the last time the two teams met.
They've had a mixed bag this year, with one win, two draws and two losses, but most against higher-ranked teams. They are firm favourites to top Group A.
Their best result at a World Cup was winning it in 1995 - current coach Hege Riise scoring the opening goal in the final. They made the quarterfinals in 2019 and have a team full of attacking stars.
Keep an eye out for Ada Hegerberg - after five years absent from the national side as a protest of unfair treatment of the women’s team, she’s a known goal scorer.
Percival, sharing the captain’s duties with Riley at this tournament, says the Ferns' goals are simple.
“We want to win a game, we’re taking each game at a time, and for us, the step after that is making it out of the group,” she says.
“Our goal is to inspire the younger generation and all the young kids that are here - not just now but for in the future. We want to leave that legacy.”
For Riley, to win a World Cup game and in New Zealand “would be the greatest tournament, the greatest game that I would ever have in my career.”
A record-breaking crowd?
In January, world number one the United States, played two games against the Ferns - at Sky Stadium and Eden Park.
The Wellington game set the crowd record for a home Football Ferns game in New Zealand, with 12,508 fans, which was then broken just three days later in Auckland.
Now the attendance record sits at 12,721, but the Ferns will be hoping for a sell-out at Eden Park today (upwards of 40,000).
The highest attendance for a women’s football match in NZ came in 2008, when 16,162 people watched the United States take on North Korea in the U17 World Cup at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland.
The Black Ferns had 42,579 fans at a sold out Eden Park for their Rugby World Cup final in November - a number the Football Ferns will surely want to match.
New Zealand will host two quarterfinals in August - one in Wellington and one in Auckland, with the latter also hosting a semifinal.
The final will be held at Stadium Australia in Sydney, which has a capacity of around 70,000 and is already close to being sold out.
Teams to watch:
Over the past year, the Football Ferns have won just three games, drawing two and losing nine.
Three of those losses were to teams ranked lower than them - two losses against Argentina (28th) and one to Nigeria (40th).
The Football Ferns remain ranked 26th in the world.
The top teams predicted to make it far into the tournament are the United States, France, Germany, Sweden and England. The US are reigning champions, defeating the Netherlands 2-0 in the 2019 final.
What you need to know about the tournament
Eden Park will host the opening ceremony, starting at 6.30pm. Kiwi Benee and Australian musician Mallrat will perform ‘Do it Again’ - the tournament anthem. The ceremony will combine aspects of both Māori and First Nations culture.
For the first time in FIFA Women’s World Cup history, 32 teams will compete, with 64 matches played across nine host cities - Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Dunedin representing New Zealand and Australia’s games split between Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney.
Team bases are split evenly between the two nations, with 16 teams based in each country. Groups A, C, E and G are all staying and training across New Zealand.
There are 33 referees, 55 assistant referees and 19 video assistant referees, including New Zealand’s Anna-Marie Keighley (match referee) and assistant ref Sarah Jones.
For the first time at a senior World Cup, the video assistant referees’ decisions will be broadcast in the stadiums, to give attending fans the explanation behind any calls.
If you want to go to a game, make sure to buy your tickets beforehand. There are no door sales so be prepared and give yourself plenty of time to enter (note: the stadiums are cash-free too). Public transport is free with your match ticket.
The FIFA Fan Festival is held in all the host cities, where fans can watch games live, alongside entertainment. Auckland (The Cloud), Hamilton (Claudelands Event Centre), Wellington (Shed 6) and Dunedin (Town Hall) will all host free entertainment alongside big match screens.
If you’re outside one of the host cities, all games will be live on Sky Sport, with almost half shown live, free-to-air on Prime as well.
Football Ferns World Cup Squad:
Goalkeepers: Erin Nayler, Victoria Esson, Anna Leat*
Defenders: Liz Anton*, CJ Bott, Claudia Bunge*, Michaela Foster*, Ali Riley, Rebekah Stott
Midfielders: Katie Bowen, Olivia Chance, Daisy Cleverley, Betsy Hassett, Annalie Longo, Ria Percival, Malia Steinmetz*
Forwards: Milly Clegg*, Jacqui Hand*, Grace Jale*, Gabi Rennie*, Indiah-Paige Riley*, Paige Satchell, Hannah Wilkinson
Training partners: Ava Collins, Meikayla Moore and Kate Taylor
* Denotes World Cup debut