Truth be told, I never expected to enjoy this FIFA Women’s World Cup; I was almost resigned not to.

Yet as the wave of 43,000 fans swept out of Eden Park for the final time – kitted out in red, yellow and blue, but barely a skerrick of black – it was time to bid a bittersweet farewell to a newfound friend.

Sad to see her go, yet surprisingly grateful to have made her acquaintance. 

The last of the Big Four global women’s sports events to roll out in Aotearoa in the past two years, I had a touch of Big-Event Burnout. Seriously, how could this tournament ever live up to the mania and pure joy of the Rugby World Cup 10 months ago? When I was caught on camera at this very ground, screaming ‘Kick it out!’ and crying in disbelief when the Black Ferns snuck past France into the final… that extraordinary final which finally turned the tide for women’s rugby in this country.

So how on earth could a football tournament, where our home team were given slim hope of similarly setting the nation alight, reach the same fever pitch?

How thrilled I am to have been proven so wrong. And after only 48 minutes.

From the moment Hannah Wilkinson belted the ball through Norway’s shocked defence, and our Football Ferns hunkered down and held out for New Zealand’s first-ever win at a World Cup, Kiwis were smitten.

Matildas goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold saves France’s fifth penalty in the quarterfinal shoot-out decider. Photo: Getty Images.

Twenty-seven days on, it no longer stings as sharply that the Ferns didn’t quite force their way into the knockout stage. We’ve adopted new teams to cheer for, sprinkling the names of new sports stars in our everyday conversations – Linda C, Lauren James, Mackenzie Arnold, Jacqui Hand. Even Zećira Mušović (or at least, ‘the Swedish goalkeeper’).

There’s been the almost unbelievable anecdotes, like the dyed-in-the-wool rugby pub with banks of TVs – one showing a Warriors victory, with eventually no one watching, as all the patrons were glued to the rest of the screens tuned into the longest penalty shoot-out in football World Cup history. And they cheered for the Aussies.

Even after Xero dealt out 20,000 free tickets to get the ball rolling for the earliest games, we snatched up the rest at nearly all 29 games played around the country. And then we turned up in record-breaking droves – more than 700,000 bums on seats across four New Zealand stadiums. Only the 2011 Rugby World Cup can better those numbers.

And we’d worried no one would come.  

“It was good for our community! I’ve never seen so many Filipino outside the Philippines in one place. It felt really great,” Kiwi-Filipino Luna Mogueis-Cameron on the thousands of fans at the Philippines’ 6-0 loss to Norway at Eden Park.  

For one last time at Eden Park on Tuesday night, another record-equalling sell-out crowd of 43,217 rolled in to support either Spain or Sweden – or to simply enjoy World Cup semifinals football. 

It would be Spain’s La Roja, who’d never beaten Sweden, who booked their tickets to Sydney with a 2-1 victory – the winning goal smashed home in the 90th minute.

In a scoreless first half, Spain used their short, sharp passes to set up stronger opportunities, but couldn’t pierce Sweden’s watertight defence.

And it wasn’t until there was less than 10 minutes of regular time left on the clock that it began raining goals. Spain’s super-sub, the swift-footed Salma Paralluelo, broke the drought in the 81st minute, capitalising on loose ball in front of Sweden’s goal. 

Six minutes later, Sweden equalised when an unmarked Rebecka Blomqvist had a free shot at goal. And barely 90 seconds after that, Olga Carmona’s stunning long strike from a corner cannoned in off the crossbar – leaving Mušović with no chance of saving – and sending Spain to the final in only their third World Cup tournament. 

“Thank you for having been to all the games, and for making this tournament one of the best, the most inclusive, the most colourful, the most spectacular, the most thrilling and the most unexpected. Already at this World Cup, it’s the first time we will be breaking even,” outgoing FIFA Secretary-General Fatma Samoura applauds Kiwi fans, at the Equalize event.

Many of us have now unashamedly jumped aboard the Matildas’ bandwagon – hoping to see them topple reigning Euro champions England in the second semifinal in Sydney on Wednesday night. I can’t imagine us ever doing that with netball’s Diamonds or rugby’s Wallabies, but as gracious cohosts, surely we’re expected to back them? #Tilitsdone.

And one of our Football Ferns greats, Kirsty Yallop (who’s been analysing the games for FIFA at this World Cup), is married to Matildas’ midfielder Tameka Yallop, who scored one of their seven penalties in last weekend’s gripping quarterfinal shoot-out victory over France.

So it’s almost like we’re related.

Kirsty and Tameka Yallop with daughter, Harper, during the Matildas’ dream run at this World Cup.

The home nation will need to be prepared for a Lionesses side who seem poised to finally pounce at this tournament.

As the largest sporting event ever to grace our stadiums now packs up – and Sydney’s Stadium Australia prepares to host the remaining semi and Sunday’s final – we should consider the legacy the Big Four have left in New Zealand.

Because it’s unlikely such a purple patch in women’s sport – this streak of sequential World Cups – will happen here again.

The Cricket World Cup back in March 2022 was a masterclass in how to run a major event amid a global pandemic. Out in the middle, the cricket was epic, but imagine the atmosphere had full crowds been allowed into the grounds. And you have to wonder if having the roar of a 40,000-strong home crowd would have propelled the White Ferns further in the tournament.

The Rugby World Cup was unforgettable. World record crowds for the women’s game at Eden Park, scintillating edge-of-your-seat rugby, and a sixth World Cup for the Black Ferns. New Zealanders got right behind the tournament and are eager to watch more international women’s rugby. 

On its coattails rode the World Conference on Women and Sport, the largest gathering of female sports leaders from around the globe meeting in Auckland, sharing their victories and their struggles in a world not yet fully on board with equity for female athletes.  

But this Transtasman football tournament – hosted by two nations for the first time – showed what a slick and colossal machine FIFA is. And just how global football is in comparison to rugby, netball and cricket.

“I always knew New Zealanders would embrace the opportunity. But the moment I realised just how successful it would be was early in the group stage: Eden Park on a cold Monday night and 32,000 fans descended on the ground to watch – not the national team – but Italy v Argentina. It’s continued to grow exponentially since then,” Jane Patterson, CEO for the FIFA World Cup in NZ.

Just shy of five million Australians watched the Tillies’ quarterfinal victory over France – making it one of the most-viewed TV sporting events across the ditch in almost 20 years. The Matildas’ march into the semifinals for the first time has overshadowed the Diamonds’ Netball World Cup victory in Capetown last week.

I watched games from the media tribunes in the nosebleed rows, from a fan’s perspective just behind the goal, and even from the VIP lounge. All different views, but of the same intense, skilled, entertaining football buoyed by noisy, fervent, family crowds.

The sportswomanship (if it’s not a word, it should be) has been tremendous. My enduring memory will be of distraught young Japanese forward Maika Hamano being consoled by experienced Swedish fullback Jonna Andersson – locked in a hug for at least four minutes after Nadeshiko were eliminated in their quarterfinal. The pair are club mates in Stockholm, and Andersson could relate to Hamano’s grief – having missed the last penalty in Sweden’s gold medal loss to Canada at the last Olympics.

Japan’s Maika Hamano (left) is comforted by Sweden’s Jonna Andersson after Nadeshiko bowed out at the quarterfinals stage. Photo: Getty Images. 

For all its bonhomie and brilliance, football still has work to do in the women’s game. Equal pay, support and resources remain major issues, affecting some of the 32 nations at this tournament more than others.

A place in the last 16 for Jamaica’s Reggae Girlz meant players who, a month before the tournament had not been paid, will receive NZ$100,000 each. Nigeria and South Africa’s football stars involved in disputes over poor resources and investment should also bank the same.

Yes, the prize pool was increased for this World Cup to US$110 million – but it’s still nowhere near the US$440 million the men received at last year’s tournament in Qatar. Let’s hope FIFA president Gianni Infantino sticks to his promise to have equal prizemoney at the next round of FIFA World Cups.

Now there can be no arguments around who watches women’s football, broadcasting deals need to be stronger and settled sooner.

And there clearly aren’t enough women coaching at the pinnacle – only 12 of the 32 nations at this tournament have a female head coach (the Football Ferns among them). More must be done to encourage women to coach and support them to continue to the highest level.

“In Australia…so many of our friends there were saying ‘We’re trying to watch it on TV, it’s not easy to find’ which is insane. It’s the World Cup. So I think we have to make sure it’s an even playing field on the broadcasting, marketing and advertising front,” Actor and Angel City FC co-founder Natalie Portman, at Equalize

Here at home, full credit must go to the four Kiwi wāhine who ran the Big Four events – Andrea Nelson in cricket, Michelle Hooper in rugby, Rachel Froggatt in the women’s conference and Jane Patterson in football. Their decision to share knowledge and experience between them was pioneering.

It’s now up to each of those individual sports to keep their fast-moving women’s game on track.

Both NZ Cricket and NZ Rugby claim a healthy rise in female players since their respective World Cups – female rugby registrations doubling this winter, and cricket attracting another 2000 women and girls last summer.  But they still need to ensure their codes are inviting, safe and inclusive to keep them playing.

All three sports need to continue bringing strong international opponents to New Zealand, create more opportunities for up-and-coming players to get experience not far from home (is it finally time for a second Kiwi club football team in the A-League?) and keep building the profiles of their athletes with an audience hungry for more.  

And most importantly, they need to close the gender gap for good.

I don’t expect to see the FIFA Women’s World Cup back in this part of the world in my lifetime. A men’s World Cup here? Their female counterparts probably did the men’s chances a world of favours. Regardless, the tournament leaves these shores with an unexpected piece of my heart.

* The second semifinal, Australia v England, will be played at 10pm Tuesday night at Sydney’s Stadium Australia​​​. The bronze medal play-off is in Brisbane on Saturday 8pm, with the final in Sydney at 10pm Sunday.  All games are on Sky Sport and Prime.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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