Elizabeth Whitcomb is at her sixth FIFA Women’s World Cup, which easily qualifies her as a soccer superfan.
Yes, soccer. She’s from the US of A.
Sitting in a corner of Eden Park’s North Stand, Whitcomb nervously rode the ebb and flow of her world champion team’s first-up performance against World Cup first-timers, Vietnam, on Saturday.
But she’s not here alone – the tourists are back in town, en masse.
Whitcomb, a semi-retired project manager, is surrounded by five of her old clubmates from the Flames women of Atlanta, Georgia. In a couple of days, their gang will swell to eight, travelling throughout New Zealand during the month-long World Cup tournament.
They, in turn, are part of the US fan juggernaut of around 15,000 expected in the country to follow the USNWT, who had a patchy 3-0 win in Auckland to kickstart their campaign to win a third world title on the trot.
Americans, in all their star-spangled finery, made up about a third of the 41,107 fans on Saturday – equalled by the passionate and vocal Vietnamese supporters dressed in patriotic red and yellow hues. The other third? Football-crazy, or just curious, Kiwis.
Since her first World Cup at home in 1999, Whitcomb is thrilled to see how the women’s game – and this tournament – has evolved. She was there in the US again in 2003, Germany 2011, Canada 2015 and France 2019.
“It’s so good to see the women starting to get the treatment the men have been getting forever,” she says.
Like the equal prize money (which FIFA president Gianni Infantino has vowed to do for 2027)?
“I think I’ll be dead before that happens,” Whitcomb quips.
“In the US, the big thing is ‘No one watches women’s sports’. But that’s a lie – when women’s sport is on TV, people watch it. We just need to get the powers that be to put it on. We’re getting there.”
You betcha. Up to 6.55 million US viewers tuned in to watch Saturday’s game on the FOX network – the second most-watched Women’s World Cup group stage match featuring a US team on record.
“The US women are immensely popular; it’s crazy how popular they are now,” Whitcomb says.
That following is not just with women, either. Even the Second Gentleman of the United States – Vice-President Kamala Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, was in the Eden Park crowd at the weekend.
US Second Gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, cheering on the US women’s team at Eden Park.
The World Cup has gone a long way to building that fervour, Whitcomb explains. “It’s such a fun event. Everybody’s enthusiastic, energetic, happy and excited. I went to the men’s World Cup in ‘98 in France, which was okay.”
Whitcomb’s first tournament in 1999 was the first to take the game to big stadiums. But not all the World Cups have lived up to the hype.
“France last time was a little disappointing. We’d go into the cities, and they might have a fan zone but it wasn’t very good,” she says. “But I feel like New Zealand is doing a really good job of putting this on. We were at the Football Ferns’ first game [their shock 1-0 win over Norway] and it was so exciting.”
Whitcomb has played soccer since she was nine; one of her team-mates at high school, Mary Sturken, is on her World Cup debut tour with the Flames fan club.
“When they came back in 2019, they brought me a US team scarf and said: ‘You’re coming next time’. I was like ‘Yeah right, I have two children and I teach, there’s no way’. But when it came time, I was like ‘I’m going’,” Sturken says.
“What makes it special is doing this with the eight of us who’ve all played together; it’s a great bond. And to watch how women’s soccer has grown so much makes it so much fun.”
The players feel the love, too. US megastar Alex Morgan (who had her penalty saved by valiant Vietnamese keeper Thi Kim Thanh Tran) could hear the unmistakable chant of ‘U-S-A’ in the Eden Park crowd – even when it competed against the opposing cry of ‘Vi-et-nam’.
“It was great to see so many fans out there and the crowd being pretty loud for most of the game,” Morgan, playing at her fourth World Cup, said. “There were also a lot of Vietnamese people in the crowd cheering for them too. All we want is a high-energy, good crowd and you couldn’t ask for more today.”
The Vietnamese fans were from both the local population and tourists following the team in their World Cup debut. Vocal and excited, some wore the traditional dress, ao dai (silk tunic and pants) while others sported headbands and heart-shaped stickers – red with the yellow star – on their cheeks. Football is regarded as the ‘King of Sport’ in their nation.
Although the ‘Golden Star Women Warriors’ had zero shots on goal compared to the US’ 28 – pegged back inside their half for almost all the game – fans were relieved it was nowhere near the 13-0 thrashing the US gave Thailand at the last World Cup.
Just one row back from the Atlanta Flames crew sat Auckland football fanatic Nicola Igusa and her three children. They were on a mission – to watch two World Cup matches in two cities on the same day.
Once the US-Vietnam clash was over, the Igusas jumped into their car, swapped their supporter shirts, and drove to Hamilton to watch the Nadeshiko Japan team take on Zambia. “It might be our only chance to see Nadeshiko Japan play,” says Nicola, whose husband, Tom, is Japanese.
The Igusas have bought tickets to 11 games at this tournament – including the Auckland semifinal and the August 20 final in Sydney.
Thirteen-year-old daughter, Greta, plays for Te Atatū AFC, and is a huge Football Ferns fan.
“It’s been so amazing watching the fire light up in her,” her mum says. “She’s really into her football this year, and after the game on Thursday night she was determined to meet as many Ferns as possible. She was weaving in and out of rows and hustling her way to the front to get to Ali Riley, Vic Esson, Grace Jale and Gabi Rennie.
“She was really gutted she didn’t get CJ Bott. She’s the only one she hasn’t met because [Bott] was injured when they played here in January.”
While Greta supported Nadeshiko, 2011 World Cup winners, as a team, she didn’t know a lot about their players – until she witnessed their 5-0 undoing of Zambia, the largest scoreline of the World Cup so far. By the end of the night, Jun Endō (who scored Japan’s fourth goal) had become one of Greta’s top three players – after Bott and Football Ferns’ scoring hero, Hannah Wilkinson.
In the USNWT, Whitcomb is a fan of Saturday’s goalscorers: Lindsey Horan (“she’s a goofball”) and Sophia Smith (“she’s young and steely, with a killer instinct about her”).
She also respects Morgan for her commitment: “She’s willing to take a clobbering every single game. She draws all the attention and opens things up.” Which is what happened when she deftly flicked the ball through to Smith for the first US goal of this tournament.
Morgan – a veteran of 209 internationals – was happy with the win, but disappointed with the score. “I feel I should have put more away,” she says. “So that’s definitely something we’re going to look to build on for the next game.” The US meet the Netherlands in Wellington on Thursday.
Can they create history with a three-peat?
“Forever we’ve heard the world is catching us up,” says Whitcomb. “And leading into World Cups, you often think this might be a bad year for us. In 2015, I was really shocked when we won. In ‘19, I felt a little more confident, but I didn’t know we were going to steamroll everybody.
“So you never know. It’s all about mentality.”
* The Football Ferns play their second pool match against the Philippines in Wellington on Tuesday, kick-off at 5.30pm, live on Sky Sport.