Women’s World Cup Spotlight Shining on Australia as Co-Host New Zealand Seeks Its Own Attention

AP Photo/John Cowpland
New Zealand’s CJ Bott, third right, reacts after scoring her team’s first goal during the New Zealand and Vietnam warm up match ahead of the women’s World Cup in Napier, New Zealand, Monday, July 10, 2023.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — In a country known more for its love of rugby than women’s soccer, New Zealand is aiming to win fans as well as matches.

The Football Ferns kick off the Women’s World Cup on Thursday night with a Group A match against Norway. The Ferns got the nod for the tournament opener and will be followed by co-host Australia’s match against Ireland in Sydney.

“I hope there will be a lot of people here for not just our games, but all of the games. It’s a world tournament and something we’ve been so excited to have here now. I’ve been looking forward to this for three years,” defender Ali Riley said. “So I hope the excitement is there and I hope we do well, so that maybe the people who didn’t know about it will hear about it and will want to come to see us make history.”

New Zealand Football announced that the opener at Auckland’s Eden Park will have the biggest crowd for a soccer match in the country’s history, estimated to be at least 50,000.

“I was at the 1999 World Cup final in Los Angeles and I know what that did for me as a young girl. And so to have people here, that noise will give us energy,” said Riley, who grew up in California and plays professionally for Angel City in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“But also I know what that can do for any little girls seeing these players, these awesome, confident empowered, women and athletes just living their dreams.”

While the Ferns are trying to capture hearts, the demand for tickets to Australia’s opener was so high that the match was moved to Stadium Australia, which was built for the 2000 Olympics and can seat more than 82,000.

The Ferns have never won a World Cup match in five previous appearances in soccer’s biggest tournament. And they have struggled this year, with losses in seven of the nine games they’ve played.

While it’s hoped that New Zealand will rally as hosts, the team faces a significant challenge in Norway, which won the World Cup in 1995. Considered the favorites in Group A, the Norwegians are 5-1-1 all-time against New Zealand, with the only loss coming in a 2019 exhibition match.

“There will be a lot of pressure, both on the home team but also on us, for the opening game, but we feel like we know what to expect,” Norway coach Hege Riise said. “Again, in opening game, everything can happen. But our preparation has been good on New Zealand, defensively and offensively, attacking, so we feel like we are prepared.”

Ada Hegerberg returns to Norway’s World Cup squad after the striker’s self-imposed hiatus from 2017 to 2022 in protest of what she believed was lack of respect for the women’s national team.

The first woman to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or award, Hegerberg scored 43 goals in 76 international appearances. Currently playing for Lyon, she has scored a record 59 goals in the Champions League.

Like Hegerberg, Australia star Sam Kerr is one of the game’s top players.

Kerr is Australia’s all-time leading international scorer — among men and women — with 63 goals. She recently helped Chelsea clinch a fourth consecutive Women’s Super League title and third straight FA Cup.

“For me the expectation has kind of been growing over the four years so it’s been something I’ve learned to deal with,” she said. “Of course everyone in Australia has a lot of expectations, but it is something I take in my stride and I try to just enjoy it and I think back at Chelsea I’ve done that too. I’ve just enjoyed it and I think that’s when I’m my best me.”

Australia is well primed as co-hosts of the tournament. The team went undefeated in February’s Cup of Nations, beating Jamaica, Spain and the Czech Republic. In April, the Matilda’s ended England’s 30-game unbeaten streak with a 2-0 win.

But, a note of caution for the Matildas: they dropped a 3-2 match against Ireland in Dublin in late 2021.

Ireland is playing in its first World Cup and it has been a bumpy road to get here. A warm-up match against Colombia in Brisbane was called after 20 minutes because of what the Irish said was rough play.

Denise O’Sullivan was taken to the hospital with a shin injury the midfielder sustained during the behind-closed-doors match. Two Colombia players received yellow cards in the opening 19 minutes.

The injury wasn’t serious and O’Sullivan, who plays for the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage, was expected to play in the opener.