Women’s World Cup: New Zealand eyes another opener

Women’s World Cup: New Zealand eyes another opener
A soccer player in a black uniform raises her right fist and screams as her teammates cheer behind her.
Hannah Wilkinson after New Zealand’s 1-0 win over Norway, their first Women’s World Cup win.Credit…Andrew Cornaga/Associated Press

New Zealand, co-hosts of the World Cup, have the chance to take another big step forward on Tuesday.

Days after clinching the first World Cup victory in the team’s history, New Zealand know that a victory over the Philippines in Wellington would effectively ensure that Football Ferns, as the team is known, reach the last 16 for the first time.

In Tuesday’s other games, Colombia and South Korea will be the last of the 32 teams to take the field, and Norway – beaten by New Zealand in the opener – will try to straighten out against Switzerland.

Colombia is coming off a good performance in the Copa America, where it beat Argentina in the semifinals and lost to Brazil in the final 1-0. These results suggest a readiness to compete on the world stage.

But that competitiveness may have gone too far in a recent display against Ireland: the match was called off after 20 minutes for what the Irish labeled the Colombians’ “overly physical” play. Colombia rejected this characterization and defended its style; it said that the Irish simply “would rather not continue playing”.

Colombia will face South Korea, 2022 AFC Cup runners-up behind China, on Tuesday in Sydney, Australia (22:00 ET on Monday). The South Koreans have reached the knockout stages once in three previous World Cup games, in 2015. Four years ago, the Koreans lost all three games played.

The New Zealand players shocked many people – including themselves – by defeating Norway 1-0 in the opening match of the World Cup.

Now the Ferns find themselves in new territory: favorably positioned for a path beyond the group stage, a checkpoint not reached in five previous trips to the tournament.

The biggest obstacle to moving forward, in fact, may be behind them. Norway entered the tournament ranked 12th in the FIFA rankings, while the Philippines are ranked 46th. New Zealand are in 26th place, but now riding a wave of the so-called Fern Fever and looking forward to another night in front of a friendly crowd.

The Philippines lost 2-0 to Switzerland in their World Cup opener. Its team is heavily based in the United States – 18 of the team’s 23-woman roster are actually American-born – and it makes no excuses for that.

“I really don’t care where they were born,” said the team’s Australian coach, Alen Stajcic. “If they have the Philippines in their heart and blood and are good at football, then they are eligible for our team.

“They all play for their flag, they all play for their country, they all play for the people of the Philippines, wherever they reside.”

Norway are looking to bounce back from their early defeat and will likely need a win against Switzerland, and then another against the Philippines, to secure a place in the round of 16.

The Norwegians are led by Ada Hegerberg, the 28-year-old striker – and former player of the year – who sat out the 2019 World Cup in protest of her association’s treatment of women’s football. Hegerberg, one of the game’s best players, was absent from the national team for five years before returning for the European Championship last summer. But it was surprisingly ineffective against New Zealand, and that won’t do against the Swiss.

Switzerland dominated the Philippines in their opener, outscoring their opponents 17-3. They are unlikely to have the same advantage over the Norwegians. Ramona Bachmann, who plays club football for Paris St.-Germain, was the standout player in her team’s opening win. She will need a similar performance today to keep Switzerland moving forward.

A soccer player in a black New Zealand uniform smiles while standing on the pitch.
Ali Riley played the full 90 minutes of New Zealand’s victory over Norway and used his post-match interview to show support for the LGBTQ community.Credit…Andrew Cornaga/Associated Press

When the United States beat China on penalties to win the 1999 Women’s World Cup, young Ali Riley was one of 90,185 female fans in attendance. Riley, 11 at the time, watched as Brandi Chastain took the decisive penalty, took off her shirt and fell to her knees in triumph.

Twenty-four years later, Riley is playing in her own World Cup. Despite being born and raised in California, Riley, 35, has represented New Zealand internationally since she was a teenager. (Her father, John, is from Christchurch.) But having ridden the wave of growth in women’s soccer, she now hopes to see her team help her rugby-loving country fall in love with the sport the way Team USA propelled it in America with its performance in 1999.

“If these little girls in New Zealand feel inspired to learn a sport – I hope it’s football, of course – by watching the World Cup, when the best players and teams in the world are in their backyard, I think that’s how we can really change something for women and girls in New Zealand,” Riley said last month in an interview in Los Angeles before heading off to the tournament. “So this is my dream.”

The foundation for that dream was laid last Thursday when New Zealand stunned Norway 1-0 to claim their first win in six trips to the World Cup.

During the post-match interview, Riley, holding back tears, made sure to show her hands to the camera, clearly showing her painted nails – one hand in the light blue and pink of the Trans Pride flag and the other in the rainbow colors of the LGBTQ Pride flag – as she declared, “anything is possible”.

Riley’s nails were a show of support – a local newspaper declared her a “straight and gay icon” – and also a small rebellion.

FIFA banned the “One Love” rainbow armbands ahead of last year’s men’s World Cup in Qatar, saying they would be considered provocations to the host country and a breach of FIFA’s uniform regulations. FIFA has tried to pave a different path for the women’s tournament, allowing multi-coloured “United for Inclusion” armbands at an event that includes dozens of gay players.

Riley’s nail polish, then, was a purposeful solution.

Rachel Allison, a sociology professor at Mississippi State and author of “Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer,” said what sets Riley’s interview apart from other viral moments, such as Abby Wambach kissing her then-wife after winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup in the United States, was that Riley’s actions were premeditated.

“Equality and inclusion are core values ​​in the women’s soccer community,” said Allison. “To see a player like Ali Riley clearly knowing that she is on the verge of becoming visible as captain of her team and planning ahead to make that statement is incredibly courageous.”

Lise Klaveness, president of the Norwegian football association, walking through a crowd of seated men.
Lise Klaveness, president of the Norwegian football federation, walking through a crowd of men in March 2022, after speaking at a FIFA congress in Qatar.Credit…Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

Lise Klaveness doesn’t pull any punches. It’s not her style. For some, this is a problem. For Klaveness, a former national team player who is now president of the Norwegian football federation, it’s just who she is.

Then she will question FIFA about its ethical conflicts, about the treatment of migrant workers in World Cup projects, about the rights of women and gays. She is happy, if necessary, to say this directly to (mainly men) officials at FIFA meetings, demanding that they, as football’s leaders, hold the sport – and themselves – to a higher moral and ethical standard.

“Politically, it left me a little more exposed, and maybe people want to say to me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ in different ways,” Klaveness, 42, said in an interview ahead of the Women’s World Cup. Openly raising questions about human rights and good governance, she said, also “came with a price”.

She also believes that her positions reflect those of her federation and her country. And she says she won’t stop pressuring them. “I’m really motivated,” she said, “and the day I’m not, I quit. I have nothing to lose.”

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