Now the Football Ferns have reluctantly packed up their World Cup campaign, football aficionados urge Kiwis to keep following the world's largest women's sports event, and who to cheer for now.
As half the field go home, and the last 16 nations advance to the knockout stages of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Kiwi fans must make a choice: Who to barrack for now?
The Football Ferns bowed out having realised just one of their two goals – winning their first World Cup game, but failing to finally make it out of the group - yet won hundreds of thousands of new followers during their win-loss-draw scoresheet. This co-hosted tournament, the largest sporting event to ever reach our shores, has been too successful, too entertaining, for converts to turn their back on now.
The competition may have expanded – with 32 teams to equal the men – but the skill gap in the women’s game has shrunk.
No one team stands out as odds-on favourite to win the World Cup final in 17 days’ time. Some of the big guns have looked shaky. None of the eight teams who made their debut at football’s pinnacle tournament were really disgraced – Portugal, Morocco, Zambia and the Philippines all notched up historic first victories.
So, too, did South Africa last night, knocking out Italy with a late goal to make the last 16 for the first time. Jamaica did the same, leaping over the heartbroken Brazilians with a goal-less draw.
You can understand why interest is burgeoning - breaking records in ticket sales and global viewer numbers.
Although the Ferns have headed home, almost every ticket has sold for the five remaining games played in New Zealand (including the semifinal at Auckland's Eden Park on August 15). But if the rusty US side, with their faithful band of followers, fail to make the latter stages, expect a flood of tickets to go up for resale.
The one millionth fan passed through the Eden Park turnstiles for the US v Portugal clash – which drew a crowd of close to 42,958, the largest football crowd to ever watch a game in New Zealand. In Auckland. On a wintry Tuesday evening. Without a New Zealand flag in sight.
There have been strides towards diversity and inclusion, too. Captains able to wear rainbow-coloured armbands (or rainbow fingernails fin the case of Ferns co-captain Ali Riley); Morocco's Nouhaila Benzina becoming the first player to wear a hijab at a FIFA Women’s World Cup.
It's a breakthrough that made former Football Fern Michele Cox "exceptionally proud" - during her time working at FIFA she helped win the battle allowing women footballers around the globe to wear head coverings. "Imagine if she hadn’t been able to come here because she wears a headscarf," she says.
LockerRoom asked a collection of Kiwi football legends, sports leaders and an inspired young player the nations we should adopt in the matches leading up to the August 20 final.
Michele Cox has a soft spot for Germany, where she played professional football in the late ‘80s, but the world No.2's shock loss to Colombia and draw with Korea* now sees them eliminated. So she'll be cheering on Japan: “Because they were absolutely lethal against Spain”.
Nadeshiko (who take their name from the pink flower representing femininity and grace) caught the Spanish on the hop with three breakaway goals in their 4-0 victory earlier this week.
“The way they were nicking the ball off the Spanish, who are a really good team, was amazing and they were so quick-footed. And their structure – they look like space invaders moving across the field,” Cox, Football Fern number 49, says.
Cox’s mum, Barbara – Football Fern #1 – is backing the same team (which is fortunate, because they live under the same roof). “I’m going with Japan because I like the way they play. They are very quick and very disciplined.”
Japan are no strangers to the World Cup knockout stages – they were world champions in 2011, and runners-up in 2015. This campaign so far has been seen as a revival for the world No.11 team, after copping criticism pre-tournament for being “left behind” the rest of the footballing world.
- Japan will play Norway in Wellington on Saturday night.
- Player to watch: Golden Boot leader Hinata Miyazawa.
We've yet to see the Lionesses, the Euro 2022 champions, play on this side of the ditch. For two games they struggled in front of the goal, but any worries lifted when they blasted past China, 6-1, on Tuesday to move on from the group stage with three wins from three.
With a change to their structure and two mighty goals from Lauren James, England sent China packing early for the first time in their World Cup history.
Laura Menzies, CEO of Northern Region Football, originally called England home so naturally she’s backing the Lionesses.
“They were under the weight of expectation coming into this tournament after winning the Euros last year. The first couple of games they managed to win - sometimes good teams can grind out a win when they aren’t at their best and have a bit of luck on their side.
“But in the third game against China, it clicked, and they showed the kind of football they can play.”
- England will play Nigeria in Brisbane on Monday night.
- Player to watch: Multigoalscorer Lauren James
You could hear a collective groan of relief from 15,000 American fans at Eden Park on Tuesday night, as the world champions were saved an early exit by mere inches. After Portugal’s Ana Capeta’s shot in added time rebounded off the woodwork, the nil-all draw – their second in as many games – was enough for the USA team to scrape out of the group stages.
It’s been a disappointing campaign so far from the USWNT, gunning for a three-peat that’s never been achieved at a men’s or women’s World Cups.
But young Kiwi fan Alyssa Bellamy isn’t giving up on the side she’s been following avidly for five years.
The 17-year-old, who plays for Ellerslie AFC, has been to every US game so far, even following the Stars and Stripes brigade to the capital to watch their 1-1 draw with the Netherlands.
“Kiwis should 100 percent get behind the US team. They’re aiming for three in a row, which hasn’t been done before, and I’d love to see Alex Morgan win three World Cups,” she says. “So many US fans have come out here to support them and they create such an amazing atmosphere in the crowd.”
Those fans will need to raise the volume to another level when the US come up against archrivals and world No.3 Sweden (they’ve met a record seven times at the World Cup), who topped their group with a 2-0 victory that sent Argentina home last night.
- The US will play Sweden in Melbourne on Sunday night.
- Player to watch: Deceptive young defender Naomi Girma.
The Matildas made a jittery start at home, and when they fell 3-2 to Nigeria, it raised the possibility of both co-hosts bowing out early. But they proved themselves at last with a 4-0 rout of OIympic champions Canada - and still without their superstar, Sam Kerr. Australia's captain has yet to take the field, injuring her calf on the eve of the opening game, but she's apparently fit to play in their round of 16 encounter with Denmark.
The Matildas want to emulate the feat of their Socceroos, who beat the Danes in the same stage of last year’s men’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, and go further still.
Football Ferns all-time top goalscorer, Amber Hearn, has no hesitation putting her faith behind the Matildas. “It’s Australia all the way. As much rivalry as we have with that country, we are still brothers and sisters in arms,” she says.
Fellow Fern and ‘Correct the Internet’ champion, Bex Sowden, is a little more reserved. “I hate to admit it, but if we all get behind the Matildas and they continue to do well, it will ensure the success of the rest of the tournament that New Zealand is co-hosting,” she says.
“We are going to see the flow-on effects if Australia does well. As much as I hate to say it, ‘Go the Matildas’.”
Matilda's keeper Mackenzie Arnold leaps into the huddle after Australia's 4-0 victory over Canada.
Sport New Zealand CEO, Raelene Castle, is Aussie-born and worked there for a good chunk of her sports leadership career.
“I think Australia are an amazing team – they were under pressure against Canada and incredibly won 4-0. There’s no doubt that a home World Cup with a home team in the final would be electric,” she says. “So on the basis of not having the Football Ferns in the final, I would definitely be cheering for the Matildas.”
- Australia will play Denmark in Sydney on Monday night.
- Player to watch: The one-and-only Sam Kerr - if she gets on the pitch.
* Updated to reflect Germany's tournament exit on August 3.