New Zealand’s first-ever World Cup triumph makes history for the nation
Soccer was king on this day in a nation where rugby and cricket are dominant sports.
The first men’s or women’s FIFA World Cup game to ever be held in the Oceania region, which saw New Zealand open the tournament against Norway here a few hours before fellow co-host Australia faced the Republic of Ireland in Sydney, was greeted with excitement in line with the momentous occasion.
Even after a horrific shooting nearby that rocked the nation and prompted a pregame moment of silence, there was an air of expectation surrounding the nation’s largest city all day. This was true despite intermittent precipitation and winter temperatures in the 50s when the match at Eden Park started.
The homes on the residential streets around the national stadium were flown with the flags of the 32 World Cup competitors.
The two opening games of the 2023 World Cup in Auckland and Sydney were projected to draw more than 100,000 fans each. However, the record attendance in the former, 42,137, was far larger than the previous mark, 12,700, achieved by the Football Ferns in a friendly against the United States earlier this year.
The home crowd had a complete stake in the result the entire time. They sang the national song before the game. The wave was executed. Every time the home team made a tackle or won a corner kick, they screamed. Every time their squad reached the defensive third of the field for Norway, the volume increased. These fans were about to blow up.
Less than three minutes into the second half, they finally had the opportunity. Jacqui Hand was set free down the right wing by a deft second pass, and she beat her mark and sent a perfect pass across the face of goal to striker Hannah Wilkinson, who side-footed the ball past Norwegian goalkeeper Aurora Mikalsen and into the net. The play was initiated by goalkeeper Victoria Esson.
After that, the place was rocking for sure, and Indiah-Paige Riley almost capitalized on the energy to extend the lead with a long-range seeing-eye shot that a fully extended Mikalsen narrowly fingered over the crossbar.
The suspense as the second half came to an end was visceral without the insurance goal. Norway applied tremendous pressure. Tuva Hansen, a defender, came close to tying the score when her 20-yard shot beat Esson but missed the crossbar.
When Ria Percival of New Zealand missed a 90th-minute penalty kick that had been given following video review, the situation only became more tight.
In the end, it made no difference.
The home team held on to defeat Norway 1-0 to earn the nation its first-ever World Cup win, men’s or women’s, on what was already the most significant day in New Zealand’s soccer history.
This was New Zealand’s 22nd World Cup game overall, and everyone knew it had been a long time coming.
Nine years before the first tournament for women, in 1982, New Zealand’s men made their debut in the sport’s premier event. The Football Ferns participated in that Women’s World Cup and the following four without ever experiencing success. The longest winless skid in Women’s World Cup history at 15 games.
Was it worthwhile to wait? It’s difficult to dispute that it was after seeing what happened at frigid Eden Park on Thursday during New Zealand’s maiden game on home turf.
In an interview with FOX Sports prior to the competition, veteran Ferns captain Ali Riley said that winning a World Cup match at home would “make it my greatest game of my career.”
That’s what this particular instance signified, and who can say what will happen next? New Zealand has made history, but its World Cup campaign is just getting started.