6 Months Away: New Zealand is buzzing ahead of World Cup co-hosting duties
It was 3:00AM on Boxing Day. My luggage was packed, my excitement was at an all-time high, and I was desperately looking forward to arriving in a country where the temperature was 35º warmer than it was when I stepped out of my Uber at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.
I was on a mission to scout out the city where the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup would begin.
Okay, that last part was not entirely true. Yes, I was looking forward to a few weeks on the beach and spending time with my family. But, while I was in the City of Sails, I was definitely going to do the last part. We'll call the timing a wonderful coincidence.
There were a lot of places on my list that I had to see before coming home, and Eden Park was very near the top.
Eden Park is hallowed sporting grounds in the Southern Hemisphere. Nestled in the trendy Auckland suburb of Kingsland, New Zealand's National Stadium has produced more than its fair share of iconic moments. The images that often reach our North American shores tend to be of a menacing Haka before the All Blacks or Black Ferns take to the rugby pitch, or for those of a bit more of a laid-back athletics persuasion, the Black Caps and White Ferns cricket exploits.
For a nation of just over 5 million people, New Zealand punches well above its weight when it comes to sports. But this year, the Kiwi landscape is more focused on football than ever. Not the rugby kind and certainly not the gridiron variety, but the association code that we love. Soccer.
The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup is just six months away. The tournament is being co-hosted by Aotearoa New Zealand and their Oceanic neighbours Australia, and it's a big deal Down Under. The tournament will be the first senior FIFA event hosted in Oceania, and the first time the Women's World Cup will be hosted in multiple countries. It is also the first FIFA Women's World Cup to be held in the southern hemisphere.
Even with half a year to go, there are activations and training sessions with the national team sprouting up in the centre of the nation's largest city of Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland. Signage is beginning to adorn buildings, billboards, and lampposts. Some high-profile nations are visiting Aotearoa in preparation for July.
With 182 days before the World Cup kicks off in Australia and New Zealand, the #FIFAWWC activations are starting to appear throughout Auckland’s CBD (Downtown)— Adam Jenkins (@adamkjenkins) January 18, 2023
The Americans are also here for two friendlies against the Ford Football Ferns. #CANWNT pic.twitter.com/0tZtyinzNl
Friday saw the U.S. win 4-0 in a friendly in the Capital of Wellington, and Saturday, Eden Park opened its doors to the Ford Football Ferns—for the very first time—in front of another record-setting national crowd of 12,721.
We've got really generous fans in that they do celebrate those small moments and obviously it's tough for them to come out and see us on the receiving end of that score but they really relish the big tackle. They relish anything that we sort of get as well. And if we have a counter-attack then they're all behind us and I think that makes a huge difference. – Ferns defender Anna Green after the match.
Les Rouges will be familiar with the two sides who battled to a 5-0 result on Saturday, in favour of the Stars & Stripes. The Kiwis came to Canada in October of 2021 as part of the Celebration Tour matches in a series in Ottawa and Montréal that ended a 29-month home-soil hiatus for the Olympic Champions. And of course, the familiarity with the U.S. is unparalleled. The most recent encounter between the North American neighbours was the Final of the W Championship in July, a match that saw the American secure an Olympic berth thanks to an Alex Morgan penalty in the 78th minute at El Gigante de Acero in Guadalupe, Mexico.
GOAL 🇺🇸— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) July 19, 2022
Alex Morgan gives the #USWNT a 1-0 lead over the #CanWNT in the 77th minute of the Concacaf W Championship final, beating Kailen Sheridan from the penalty spot#CWC | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/LU35bY8Men
Due to their draw into Group B with Australia, Nigeria, and the Republic of Ireland, there is no path that will see the Canadians in New Zealand. The top nation in the Oceania Football Confederation and the world's 24th-ranked side would have to go on quite the run to meet Christine Sinclair & Co. in the Final on August 20th at Stadium Australia in Sydney. That hypothetical assumes the Reds also do their part in going the distance.
Fortunately for Bev Priestman and her staff, Canada will meet the U.S. in just a few weeks at the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando. Unfortunately, however, If there were any lingering doubts that followed the Americans' uncharacteristically poor form at the end of 2022, they doused them in short order. On a trip that was more about acclimatizing than facing a serious challenge from their opposition, the United States easily took care of business, outscoring their hosts by nine goals to nil in just three hours of football.
It was a litmus test for Jitka Klimková's side, maybe even a bit of a reality check, but the scorelines did little to dampen the supporters' spirits. Hundreds of fans hung around for an hour after full-time in search of selfies and signed shirts or flags. You could see the eyes of the young fans in attendance light up when their heroes would walk by.
That's what this summer will mean to this nation and the Aussies. An entire month to experience the event that every player dreams of taking part in. The crowds in Wellington and Auckland offered a small sample of what is to come in less than six months; the cities of Dunedin and Hamilton will have their opportunity to be heard as well.
“We're gonna need from our home fans for the World Cup as well, when we are really battling and trying tooth and nail to get out of our group," Green added.
The support will be there. The momentum is only just picking up. Just last week, FIFA announced that over half-a-million tickets have been sold to fans from more than 120 countries for this summer's event.
From what I've seen and learned over the past month in Aotearoa, those supporters who make the trip to any of the four host cities will fall in love with this country, just as I have. And to the Kiwis, that will be "welcome as".