Either way, the Football Ferns were going to make World Cup history in Dunedin on Sunday night.
But it turned out to be the outcome they dreaded, rather than one they’d dreamed of – in spite of giving everything in their frustrating final match against Switzerland; the most significant game in their 48-year history.
In drawing 0-0 with the Swiss, ranked six places above them, the tearful, devastated Football Ferns became the first host nation to ever miss out on progressing to the knockout stages of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
They were a team given little chance of success before this tournament kicked off 10 days ago. A side who’d struggled internationally in recent years. A squad who’d endured a coaching debacle, player ructions and a loss of direction, with painful stretches without victories, or even goals to their name.
And yet these 23 women, brought together by their mantra of ‘believe’, will always be remembered for a night of magic at Eden Park, which lifted the nation, filled stadiums and ignited a new passion in women’s football.
In their sixth World Cup, the Football Ferns wrote history as the first New Zealand senior side – men or women – to win a World Cup match with their 1-0 victory over a star-studded Norway. They proved themselves to be competitive, dogged and inventive right to the end – goalkeeper Vic Esson making a determined attempt on goal with a header, during a full-press attack in added time at Dunedin Stadium. Their last line of defence was broached only once in three matches.
But in the end, the Kiwis lacked the finishing touches to take them through to the round of 16 for the first time. One goal in three World Cup games was never going to be enough to keep their dream alive.
Co-captain Ali Riley, ending her fifth World Cup campaign prematurely once again, believed she couldn’t have asked any more from her players.
“I think we gave everything,” she told Sky Sport straight after what she called a “really good” performance, particularly on defence.
“It was the same type of fight we had in game one, we lost a little in game two [a 1-0 loss to the Philippines] and we said leave everything on the field in game three, make this country proud, show who we are. And I think we did that.
“There’s a lot of tears out there but they should be so proud. Five times around, we’ve waited for this, and to finish on [four] points… Sometimes that’s life.”
In front of a colourful, noisy crowd of 26,000 under the roof at Dunedin Stadium – armed with poi and jandals clapped together – the Ferns never stopped chasing. But they were always on the back foot.
The Swiss only needed a draw to go through to the round of 16, and the many permutations showed a draw could even be enough for the Football Ferns, too. But they decided to play with the mentality that they needed more out of this final pool match. Only a victory over the world No.20 team would do.
Because at the same time, Norway and the Philippines were playing at Eden Park under similar pressure. The top seed in the pool, world No.12 Norway, were in the worst predicament – with only one point from a draw to their name.
But the Norwegians finally found the back of the net at this tournament and were leading the Philippines 3-0 at halftime, then scored again twice immediately after the break. That made it even more imperative for the Football Ferns to steal a victory if they were to survive.
The New Zealanders made a point of not finding out the score at Eden Park when they went to the locker room at halftime.
Wearing their alternate white and teal strip, the Kiwis had the upper-hand with possession in the scoreless first half and with attempts on goal – eight to Switzerland’s two.
Once again Jacqui Hand proved she’s been the relevation in the Football Ferns line-up at this World Cup. At 22 minutes, her volley across the goal once again hit the woodwork, just as she did against Norway. A stadium held its collective breath when she landed awkwardly from a header just before halftime – but she was determined to run off her smarting ankle and carry on for the rest of the game.
Goalkeeper Esson, who made some solid saves during this tournament, appeared to over-extend a knee in a clearance kick in the second half, but also decided to guts it out.
Klimkova had gone for a new approach with her starting XI, bringing Olivia Chance and veteran Annalie Longo into her midfield. But Chance was showing signs of still being on the comeback from injury, replaced at halftime by the enterprising Indiah-Paige Riley; and Longo, in her fifth World Cup, left the pitch for Betsy Hassett after a gutsy 60 minutes.
The Football Ferns didn’t really trouble the Swiss with the same intensity in the second half. A shot from Malia Steinmetz from a corner went straight into the hands of Swiss keeper Gaëlle Thalmann, as did another lacklustre attempt by Hand in the final minutes of regulation time.
Katie Bowen was superb on defence – especially as the Swiss stepped up their infamous counter-attacks – and set up play on attack.
With time running out, Klimkova played all of her substitution cards in a final bid to break the deadlock – including a surprising switch taking experienced co-captain Ria Percival off for Grace Jale.
Then with eight minutes of added time left, the Ferns lifted their game again, threw everything they had on attack – while the Swiss were determined to simply keep their scorecard clean.
Esson ran the length of the field to help out in a Kiwi corner attempt, that they failed to finish off. She came forward again for a free kick outside the penalty box – and her header off Bowen’s kick just went wide.
A scoreless draw left New Zealand on the same points as Norway (who’d also drawn 0-0 with the Swiss), but their eventual 6-0 hiding of the Philippines gave them a far superior goal difference to continue on to the knockout rounds.
An obviously deflated Klimkova – two years into her six-year coaching contract – was nevertheless proud of what her team had achieved. “I know it’s super emotional now because everybody’s very disappointed about the result, but this team can be so proud of what we’ve done, so proud of tonight,” she told Sky Sport.
“I’m so proud of seven debutants, that’s their first time on the field during the World Cup and nobody will forget our first win on New Zealand soil. Three players had to wait five World Cups to get here and we’ve done it, we got four points from the tournament, which is great. We conceded one goal. There’s so many positives that we are taking away from the whole experience here in New Zealand.
“I believe that we inspired boys and girls to play football, I feel that the nation is behind us and I really am thankful for that because they are part of this journey – and they are part of us.”
Group A survivors Switzerland and Norway will now play Japan or Spain next Saturday (their meeting on Monday night will determine the order). As hard as it is, the Football Ferns must now watch the rest of this pinnacle tournament on their home turf from the stands. And rue missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.