AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — In a country known more for its love of rugby union than women’s soccer, New Zealand aspires to win fans as well as games.
The Football Ferns inaugurate the Women’s World Cup on Thursday night with a Group A match against Norway. The Ferns got the nod for the tournament opening just an hour before co-hosts Australia’s match against Ireland in Sydney.
“I hope there are a lot of people here not just for our games, but for all games. It’s a global tournament and something we’ve been really excited to have here now. I’ve been waiting for this for three years,” defenseman Ali Riley said. “So I hope the excitement is there and we get it right, so maybe people who didn’t know about it will find out and want to come see us make history.”
New Zealand Football announced that the opening match at Auckland’s Eden Park will feature the largest crowd for a football match in the country’s history, estimated at 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 kid. And having people here, that noise will give us energy,” said Riley, who grew up in California and plays professionally for Angel City in the Women’s National Soccer League.
“But I also know what that can do for any little girl to see these players, these incredible, confident, empowered women and athletes just living their dreams.”
While the Ferns are trying to win hearts, demand for tickets to Australia’s opening game was so high that the match was moved to Stadium Australia, which was built for the 2000 Olympics and seats over 82,000.
The Ferns have never won a World Cup match in five previous appearances in soccer’s biggest tournament. And they’ve struggled this year, losing seven of the nine games they’ve played.
While New Zealand is expected to reunite as hosts, the team faces a major challenge in Norway, who won the World Cup in 1995. Considered the favorites in Group A, the Norwegians are 5-1-1 overall. times against New Zealand. with the lone loss coming in a 2019 exhibition match.
“There will be a lot of pressure, both on the home team and on us, for the opening game, but we feel we know what to expect,” Norway coach Hege Riise said. “Again, in the opening game, anything can happen. But our preparation has been good in New Zealand, defensively and offensively, attacking, so we feel we are ready.”
ada hegerberg returns to Norway’s World Cup squad after the forward’s self-imposed hiatus from 2017 to 2022 in protest at what she believed was disrespect 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 Champions League goals.
Like Hegerberg, Australian star Sam Kerr is one of the best players in the game.
Kerr is Australia’s all-time leading international goalscorer, between men and women, with 63 goals. He recently helped Chelsea to a fourth consecutive Women’s Super League title and third consecutive FA Cup.
Australia is well prepared as co-hosts of the tournament. The team went undefeated in the Nations Cup in February, beating Jamaica, Spain and the Czech Republic. In April, the Matildas ended England’s 30-match unbeaten run with a 2–0 win.
But, a note of caution for the Matildas: they lost a match 3-2 against Ireland in Dublin at the end of 2021.
Ireland are playing in their first World Cup and it’s been a bumpy road to get here. A warm-up match against Colombia in Brisbane was called off after 20 minutes due to what the Irish said was rough play.
Denise O’Sullivan was taken to hospital with a shin injury sustained by the midfielder during the game behind closed doors. Two Colombian players received yellow cards in the first 19 minutes.
The injury was not serious and O’Sullivan, who plays for the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL, was expected to play in the opening game.