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Women’s World Cup: New Zealand Takes Aim at Another First

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Women’s World Cup: New Zealand Takes Aim at Another First

Hannah Wilkinson after New Zealand’s 1-0 win over Norway, its first-ever win at the Women’s World Cup.Credit…Andrew Cornaga/Associated Press

New Zealand, the World Cup’s co-host, has a chance to take another big step forward on Tuesday.

Days after it earned the first World Cup victory in the team’s history, New Zealand knows a win over the Philippines in Wellington would effectively assure that the Football Ferns, as the team is known, will reach the knockout rounds for the first time.

In Tuesday’s other games, Colombia and South Korea will become the last of the 32 teams to take the field, and Norway — beaten by New Zealand in its opener — will try to right itself against Switzerland.

Colombia is coming off a strong performance in the Copa América Championship, where it beat Argentina in the semifinals and fell to Brazil in the final, 1-0. Those results suggest a readiness to contend on the world stage.

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

Colombia will face South Korea, the runner-up to China in the 2022 Asian Cup, on Tuesday in Sydney, Australia, (10 p.m. Monday Eastern time). The South Koreans have made it to the knockout stages once in three previous World Cup appearances, in 2015. Four years ago, the Koreans lost all three of their games.

New Zealand’s players shocked many people — including themselves — by upsetting Norway, 1-0, in the opening match of the World Cup.

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

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

The Philippines lost, 2-0, to Switzerland in its World Cup debut. Its team draws heavily from the United States — 18 players on the squad’s 23-women roster, in fact, were born in America — and makes no excuses about that.

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

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

Norway is looking to bounce back from its opening loss and probably needs a win against Switzerland, and then another against the Philippines, to ensure it goes through to the knockouts.

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

Switzerland dominated the Philippines in their opener, outshooting their opponents by 17-3. They are unlikely to have the same advantage over the Norwegians. Ramona Bachmann, who plays her club soccer 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 field.
Ali Riley played all 90 minutes of New Zealand’s win over Norway and used her postgame interview to show support for the L.G.B.T.Q. community.Credit…Andrew Cornaga/Associated Press

When the United States beat China in a penalty shootout to win the 1999 Women’s World Cup, a young Ali Riley was one of the 90,185 fans in attendance. Riley, 11 at the time, looked on as Brandi Chastain scored the decisive penalty, stripped off her jersey and then 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 her teens. (Her father, John, is from Christchurch.) But having ridden the wave of growth in women’s soccer herself, she is now hoping to see her team help her rugby-loving country fall for the sport the way the United States team turbocharged it in America with its performance in 1999.

“If these little girls in New Zealand feel inspired to pick up a sport — I hope it’s soccer, of course — from watching the World Cup, when the best players in the world and the best teams in the world are in their backyard, I think that’s the way that we can actually change something for women and for young girls in New Zealand,” Riley said last month in an interview in Los Angeles before departing for the tournament. “So that’s my dream.”

The foundation of that dream was laid last Thursday, when New Zealand stunned Norway, 1-0, to post its first win in six trips to the World Cup.

During her post-match interview, Riley, holding back tears, made sure to flash her hands toward the camera, clearly showing her painted fingernails — one hand in the light blue and pink of the Trans Pride flag, and the other the rainbow colors of the L.G.B.T.Q. Pride flag — as she declared, “anything is possible.”

Riley’s nails were both a show of support — a local newspaper declared her a “straight, gay icon” — and also one of minor rebellion.

FIFA banned rainbow “One Love” armbands ahead of last year’s men’s World Cup in Qatar, saying they would be considered provocations toward the host country and a violation of FIFA’s uniform regulations. FIFA tried to thread a different needle for the women’s tournament, allowing multicolored “Unite for Inclusion” armbands in an event that includes dozens of gay players.

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

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

“Equality and inclusion are central values in the women’s soccer community,” Allison said. “To see a player like Ali Riley clearly knowing that she’s about to become visible through captaining her team and plan ahead to make this statement is incredibly courageous.”

Lise Klaveness, the president of Norway’s soccer federation, walking amid a crowd of seated men.
Lise Klaveness, the president of Norway’s soccer federation, walking through a crowd of men in March 2022 after addressing a FIFA congress in Qatar.Credit…Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

Lise Klaveness does not pull punches. It is not her style. To some, that is a problem. To Klaveness, a former national team player who is now the president of Norway’s soccer federation, it is just who she is.

So she will needle FIFA about its ethical conflicts, about the treatment of migrant workers on World Cup projects, about the rights of women and gay people. She is happy, if needed, to say it straight to the (mostly male) officials at FIFA gatherings, demanding that they, as soccer’s leaders, hold the sport — and themselves — to a higher moral and ethical standard.

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

She also believes her positions reflect those of her federation, and her country. And she says she will not stop pressing them. “I’m very motivated,” she said, “and the day I’m not, I’ll quit. I have nothing to lose.”

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