Hannah Wilkinson has now left her indelible mark inside and out at Eden Park.
With the touch of a spraycan and a steady hand, she created a black-and-white mural on the outer wall of Auckland’s iconic stadium, celebrating the three women’s World Cups played in New Zealand over the past two years.
And with the touch of her orange right boot, Wilkinson created history on the park’s meticulously manicured turf, securing New Zealand’s first victory at a senior FIFA World Cup.
The Football Ferns veteran striker and gifted artist drew inspiration for her painting from the whakataukī (Māori proverb) Whāia te iti kahurangi – pursue the treasure you value most dearly.
And on a night when New Zealand, as a nation, needed a salve to the traumatic events in the city that morning, it’s exactly what Wilkinson did – relentlessly chasing down a goal in the FIFA Women’s World Cup opening match on Thursday night against a Norwegian team of superstars.
Her drive and determination paid off in the 48th minute when she punched home the perfect cross from team-mate Jacqui Hand – for which Norway (ranked 12th in the world to New Zealand’s 26th) then had no answer.
“Wilkie” sent the country into rapture, thumping her chest in pride, and later led the Ferns in a victory lap around Eden Park to thank the record 42,000-strong crowd.
“It made all the difference for us and you could see it,” Wilkinson said after the 1-0 win. “We were creating chances, we were composed on the ball and we were defensively strong. I hope we got some Kiwis really excited about women’s football in this country. I’m so proud to be a Fern tonight.”
And the kid from Whangārei with the blue-steel stare was proud, too, to have achieved a striking first in a stadium she has a special connection with. One that’s unlikely any other world footballer can claim. “It’s amazing to have that part of me on the outside of the stadium and then scoring inside of it – not many people can say that, so it’s pretty cool,”
Of this 23-woman Football Ferns squad, was it any surprise it was Wilkinson who’d seal this win? She’s no stranger to making history.
Twelve years ago, her last-minute goal against Mexico clinched New Zealand’s first point in a World Cup with a 2-2 draw. She also happened to be the last Football Fern to score at a World Cup four years ago.
This was the start the Football Ferns – and FIFA – had dreamed of. A win that will inevitably engage a nation that’s been slow to get in behind the largest sporting event ever played here. A win that will go a long way to helping New Zealand secure another football first – to advance beyond the group stage of a World Cup.
A strong follow-up result against the lower-ranked Philippines next Tuesday, or higher-ranked Switzerland five days later, should be enough to transport them there.
And who could blame the Ferns, a team who’ve struggled internationally for years, for celebrating wildly, as if they already had one hand on the Cup itself?
Players broke into tears when the final whistle blew, after an agonising nine minutes of added time, as the Norwegians threatened time and time again to steal a draw.
Co-captain Ali Riley walked out into the centre of the pitch and stood alone, with her hands on her head and tear-filled eyes turned to the sky. It was only then that the rain, which had earlier threatened to ruin this spectacle, finally began to fall.
As they came through the tunnel on their way to the changing rooms (where two Kiwi Prime Ministers waited to congratulate them), nearly every beaming Fern described it as the best day of her career.
“The biggest [moment] by far – absolutely,” Wilkinson reckoned.
“We’ll wait and see if we can progress out of the groups first, but as it goes so far, this is definitely the best moment of my career,” fullback CJ Bott agreed.
“It’s the most amazing moment of my life,” said Betsy Hassett. “It makes this last 16 years of playing just totally worth it.
“Our performance was unreal. We had so much confidence today… It was such a good feel out there, we were connecting well, everyone was winning their 50-50 battles.”
But this unforgettable day had begun in the most surreal and frightening way.
Before dawn broke, The FIFA Fan Festival at The Cloud on Auckland’s waterfront was sparking into life. The Breakfast show was broadcasting live while kids from the Ellerslie AFC kicked a ball around against a vibrant background.
Then, just before 7.30am, a barrage of shots was heard close by. Everyone inside The Cloud – including a couple of Football Fern legends – were calmly ushered to the windowless kitchen. We sat on bean bags, ate lollies and sang Tūtira mai ngā iwi, unaware of the scale of the tragedy unfolding outside. Three people were dead, including a gunman who’d walked onto a nearby construction site, and opened fire. (The Norwegian team were holed up in their hotel nearby).
Once it was safe, we walked from The Cloud into daylight, struggling to adjust to the unfamiliar scene – armed police, cordon-off streets, ambulance sirens. This wasn’t the city we knew.
The Cloud then became a place for police to interview witnesses, before Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, and Auckland Council decided together the Fan Festival would remain closed all day, out of respect for those who’d lost their lives.
But FIFA, rightly, decided the opening ceremony and the first game of the tournament should go on, recognising the tragedy with a moment’s silence before the first kick-off.
And while Auckland had looked so foreign that day, so too did its famous stadium, the permanent home of cricket and rugby, transformed with the football tournament’s colourful branding, dazzling lights and slogan, Beyond Greatness.
Filled with families, the heavily-biased crowd cheered every Kiwi touch – with the occasional boo for a heavy-handed tackle on one of their own. They screamed “handball!” in unison in the 86th minute when Norwegian Tuva Hansen deflected a Malia Steinmetz shot inside the box (Ria Percival’s penalty agonisingly rebounding off the woodwork). The only thing missing from this great footballing moment was a harmonised crowd chant (thankfully, the dreadful Unity Chant conjured up for this tournament never surfaced).
Australia’s Matildas, without their injured star Sam Kerr, also had a 1-0 victory, over Ireland, in Sydney last night – going a long way towards upholding the record of a host national never failing to advance to the round of 16 in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
New Zealand is playing its part to do the same.