New Zealand shocked the World Cup, the crowd and the nation – everyone but themselves – in pulling off a historic upset win over Norway in the tournament opener in Auckland.
It was all about belief.
The Football Ferns have done what many thought impossible – winning their first FIFA Women’s World Cup match of any of the tournaments they’ve competed at.
Many wrote off the Ferns for their opening game against world number 12 Norway, focusing on their second game against Philippines for their elusive win.
But a goal in the 48th minute from Hannah Wilkinson was enough for the Ferns to make history, as they hung on to be famous, 1-0 victors.
A nervy 10-or-so added minutes sent heart rates rocketing around the country (mine over 150) and the tears and hugs from the Ferns when the final whistle went showed what it meant for the side.
In front of a record crowd of 42,137, some were unsure if Kiwis would be filling the seats. But the noise in the crowd showed just how much support there was for the home team, the volume increasing every time a Ferns player had the ball.
New Zealand had the edge in terms of possession in the first half, but the game ended with equal possession for both sides, as Norway came back into the game.
Football Ferns goalkeeper Vic Esson was phenomenal, getting her fingertips to a shot in the 81st minute, the ball clipping the bar and being the closest Norway came to scoring.
An emotional Ali Riley spoke to Sky Sport in front of a still vocal crowd at the end of the match.
“I think there have been a lot of doubters because of the results we’ve had but we believed,” the captain for the game says.
“We believed in ourselves the entire game, we believed in ourselves from the very beginning and we showed it, we played with confidence and with poise…this is what dreams are made of.”
“We wanted to inspire young girls, young people around the country and around the world and I really think we did that tonight. Anything is possible!”
This win was the Ferns’ second ever win over Norway, their first in April 2019. Norway beat the Ferns 2-0 in their last meeting in June last year.
The 1995 World Cup winners, Norway made the quarterfinals in 2019 and were firm favourites to beat the world number 26. They’re known for their strength on attack, but only had two shots on target.
The Football Ferns created several chances in the first half, delighting the fans, but Norway had just as many, and came a lot closer to finding the back of the net. Hannah Wilkinson had an early chance in the fifth minute, giving a confidence boost to the side from the get-go.
New Zealand had the slight advantage at half-time in terms of possession, sitting at 54 percent. Keeping the ball out of Norway’s attacking end was key, as when they did get the ball, they were dangerous, challenging the Ferns’ experienced back four.
The Ferns haven’t been the strongest side in the second half in the past, slowing down in their 2-0 win against Vietnam last Monday.
In the 48th minute, Jacqui Hand flew down the sidelines and found Hannah Wilkinson, smack bang in front of the goal. A known goal scorer when it counts, Wilkinson tapped it in and you could see what it meant to the players and the crowd.
And when that goal came, the Ferns did well not to get carried away, and were back in business mode, keeping the ball mostly in their half.
New Zealand’s experienced back four of Rebekah Stott, captain Riley, Katie Bowen and CJ Bott were instrumental, especially in the second half.
Player of the match, Wilkinson came off the field in the 85th minute, to a huge roar from the appreciative crowd.
But their intensity never wavered, and a Norwegian handball inside the penalty area gave Ria Percival a penalty kick in the 88th minute. When it hit the crossbar, New Zealand kept their calm and didn’t flinch until the final whistle.
Asked on Sky Sport after fulltime how the win ranked in her career, goalscorer Wilkinson said: “It’s definitely my favourite so far, I’m so proud of the team today.
“We just went out there with nothing but belief, we went out there and we felt the nation’s support today.”
She put the win down to the nine weeks the Ferns spent together.
“We’re a team that usually has to show up on a tour, train twice, jet lagged and then play a game and work it out during the game,” she explains.
“This time, we were really well prepared, we were really, really connected, we felt the support of Aotearoa and we went out there and I think everybody really just was buzzing and we had so much belief, we knew that a goal was coming, we knew we were on top of them and we got that result tonight.
Coach Jitka Klimková was clutching a small token with the word ‘believe’ on it after the game – echoing captain Riley’s sentiments.
“I’m so so proud of this group, it’s such an amazing group of people who are working towards one goal and we did it,” she told Sky Sport.
“I’m so happy for them, for the players, for the staff, for the fans, for the families, for everyone here.”
The packed crowd at Eden Park not only broke the record for attendance at a home Football Ferns match (12,721) but also the biggest crowd at a women’s football game in New Zealand (16,162) and for any men’s football game in NZ (37,034).
Klimková says the 42,137 fans absolutely gave the side a lift.
“They were the 12th player on the field, everybody around, I just want to say a huge thank you for supporting us because we would not do it without them.”
So what’s next for the Football Ferns?
They face the Philippines on Tuesday, which they’ll be full of confidence for. The top two teams in the group move on to the next stage of play so if New Zealand beat the Philippines, their chances of making it through the group stage for the first time will be pretty high.
But for now, they’ll be flying high after making history.