Two days before the opening game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the New Zealand Ford Football Ferns signed The Ball, a symbol for gender equality and climate action, and pledged to push for better conditions for girls and women in sport worldwide. Two days later, they scored their first ever World Cup victory. Coincidence? The Spirit of Football Team thinks not!
The lead up to the opening game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup (WWC) 2023 was a roller coaster. At around 7 am, the Radio New Zealand newscaster said something about how many billion people would be watching the match, and my stomach leapt to my throat – I’d be performing in the opening ceremony and wasn’t sure I was ready for all those eyes.
Moments later, breaking news reported an active shooter in central Auckland, in a building under construction not far from the main transport hub, the WWC Fanzone, and the hotels of some of the players.
The anticipation of the opening match got swept up and blown around by the as-yet-not-understood actions of one 24-year-old man who ended up killing two, injuring many, and dying in an elevator shaft. One saving grace was that the police had acted swiftly to control the situation and keep the public safe.
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Later that evening, before the cast of over 200 volunteer opening ceremony performers went into our positions in the concrete hallways under Tāmaki-makau-rau Auckland’s iconic Eden Park, the Māori group representing the local iwi, Ngāti Whātua o Orākei, led us in a karakia (prayer). They began by acknowledging those who would be grieving tonight while we would be celebrating this event. In the stadium, just before kickoff, a moment of silence was also held for the victims.
In between the karakia (prayer) and the moment of silence, a 9-minute opening ceremony launched the WWC. With the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa and Australia at its heart, the performance was about groups meeting in peace and uniting with explosive enthusiasm.
The finale of the ceremony featured pop artists BENEE (NZ) and Mallrat (AUS) performing the song they had collaboratively created for the Cup. The chorus of ‘Do it Again’ celebrates the grit that goes with chasing dreams: ‘Do it, don’t quit, no stress, don’t miss / Don’t overthink and do it again’. I’d say that the same message goes for committing to sustainability and gender equity! (By the way, you can make your own pledge here).
After changing out of my costume and adding about 3 more layers, top and bottom, I met The Ball, Iris, Andrew, and family in the stadium about ten minutes into the game. Of course The Ball had to be at the opening match to cheer on the Football Ferns, Norway AND women’s football as a whole!
We from Spirit of Football were particularly amped to watch the Ferns on the field, after having had the incredible opportunity to meet them two days before this first game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup! They were happy to support The Ball’s message for gender equality and sustainability and co-captain Ali Riley pledged on behalf of the team that they would continue to “push for better conditions for women and girls in sport, not just in New Zealand, but around the world!”
By the time you read this, you’ll already know the outcome of the game and understand why it brought supporters – many attending a live women’s football match for the first time – to its feet and to tears. The skills of the players, the tension of two teams going for goals and having them prevented, and then, a sudden GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!
That goal, scored in the 48th minute of the game by #17, Hannah Wilkinson, and beautifully set up by #16, Jacqui Hand, was followed by another 42 plus nine minutes of incredible football that the Ferns fans watched in noisy desperation – could they pull off a remarkable upset?!
When the full-time whistle blew with the Ferns having held their 1-0 lead, the crowd went bananas, and the Ferns could be seen smiling through tears at the victory, their first in a World Cup since they first qualified in 1991 and the very first by a senior New Zealand football team. This historic win took place in front of 42,137 fans – the largest ever attendance at a football match (male or female) in New Zealand.
Could the Ferns’ signing of The Ball have set the stars right for this historic win? Signing The Ball is known to bring an extra little bit of luck for important games 😉 For example, the All Blacks had signed The Ball a day before their win against South Africa, and the Fiji U19 Women’s Team made it to the OFC Tournament Final after signing The Ball in June.
After the match, The Ball made its way to a local pub to watch Australia v Ireland. En route, The Ball encountered and was signed by Brazilians living in Aotearoa and cheering on the Ferns (for today), a transport officer advising folks of their public transport options for the return home, and three of the opening ceremony stage management team. The Ball also made an appearance in Kingsland pub Citizen Park, where the small world that is Tāmaki-makau-rau Auckland brought Andrew face to face with a childhood friend.
Ahmad, the Somalian Uber driver who transported The Ball and its four guardians home later that night, had also witnessed football history live at Eden Park. A broad smile stretched across his face as he talked about the match, signed The Ball, and proudly stuck his Spirit of Football sticker on his windscreen, right next to his warrant and registration.
The games are underway, and the Spirit of Football is in full force!
By Kristin, American-Kiwi, new member of the Spirit of Football team.