Ferns open World Cup campaign with first ever win

The Football Ferns opened their FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 campaign with a first ever World Cup win, dispatching former champions and 12th ranked Norway 1-0, in front of a record crowd of 42,137.

Hannah Wilkinson, who secured history for the Ferns 12 years ago when her last minute goal against Mexico secured the Ferns their first ever World Cup point, and now she’s the hero again by securing that historic first ever win.

She broke the deadlock in the 48th minute, timing her run into the Norwegian penalty area perfectly to coolly convert Hand’s cross for her 29th international goal, and a third at a FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Lining up in the same 4-3-3 formation that beat Vietnam in Napier 10 days ago, the first chance of the game fell to the Ferns, as Hannah Wilkinson made a break to the byline. Norway failed to deal with her cutback, and the ball fell to local Malia Steinmetz, whose effort was blasted over the bar. Two minutes later, Ada Hegerberg wowed the crowd with a speculative overhead effort, but it didn’t really trouble Vic Esson.

Kiwi crowds generally carry a reputation for being on the quieter side of things, but if tonight was anything to go by, that’s past its sell-by date as the Kiwis found their voice. Every break, every tackle, every well-timed pass drew roars from the 42,137-strong, appropriately partisan stadiumand the Ferns settled into playing in front Aotearoa’s biggest ever football crowd like they did it every week. CJ Bott’s typically robust tackles and India-Paige Riley’s deft runs drawing particular acclaim.

The Ferns ended the first half with the momentum and a series of chances, but the deadlock still unbroken.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – JULY 20: Malia Steinmetz of New Zealand (C) getting into the field during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group A match between New Zealand and Norway at Eden Park on July 20, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Ane Frosaker/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

With almost half the match to play, the Ferns kept searching for a second goal cushion, and they almost had it in the 63rd minute, as Indiah-Paige Riley forced Auroroa Mikalsen into a save at full stretch, denying a shot that seemed destined for the top left corner.

Wilkinson almost turned provider in the 76th minute, using her strength to set up Percival, but New Zealand’s record appearance holder blasted wide.

Hearts were in mouths in the 81st minute, as Tuva Hansen unleashed a seemingly goalbound shot from the edge of the penalty area, with Esson getting the slightest touch to ensure it rebounded off the crossbar, with Percival clearing to safety.

The Ferns had a chance to double their lead at the end of normal time, after VAR judged that Hansen had handballed in her penalty area. But even this miss wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits of the crowd, although news straight after that there was nine minutes of additional time momentarily did.

But in the end, the Ferns were able to secure that historic first win, and find no better way to kick off their home World Cup.

Throughout the 90+ minutes, there were numerous moments that reminded you of exactly what this match meant.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – JULY 20: Ria Percival (L) and Malia Steinmetz (R) of New Zealand celebrate after the team’s 1-0 vcitory in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group A match between New Zealand and Norway at Eden Park on July 20, 2023 in Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau, New Zealand. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Little moments, like the match being kicked off by Jacqui Hand who grew up just 30 minutes away from Eden Park.

The bigger moments, such as the sight of Rebekah Stott starting at the heart of defence, after her inspirational recovery from Hodgkins Lymphoma, or Ria Percival marshalling the midfield like she hadn’t had a 14-month layoff after sustaining a ruptured ACL and meniscus so serious her surgeon still has nightmares about it.

The fact that this was eight of the New Zealand starting XI’s first time playing at Aotearoa’s national stadium, and it being only the second time ever the Ferns had played there (the first time being in January this year).

What about the poi waved in the crowd, connecting the FIFA Women’s World Cup to last year’s Rugby World Cup, as it becomes a symbol of the surging development of women’s sport?

But how about the fact that the first goal was scored by Hannah Wilkinson, the Fern to secure her team’s first ever World Cup point back in 2011 as a teenager, being the last Fern to score for New Zealand in a World Cup (against China in 2015), and now becoming the Fern to secure her country its first ever win at a senior World Cup?

The Ferns now have two games to continue making history and secure passage to the knockout stages of a World Cup for the first time.