Between them, Katie Bowen and Rebekah Stott have represented New Zealand on almost 200 occasions. It should be near-impossible, therefore, to pick their favourite match or best performance — far less agree on one.
But after Thursday’s events at Eden Park, it’s not difficult at all.
“Oh, that’s the best, without a doubt,” Bowen told FIFA, reflecting on the Football Ferns’ 1-0 win over Norway.
Main photo: The Ferns celebrate at Eden Park. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.
“It’s the best football we’ve played, the most composure we’ve shown, the most organised we’ve been. And that’s against a really strong team with some world-class players.”
“I can’t think of anything that’s been better,” agreed Stott. “To play like that, in front of a crowd like that, is pretty special.”
It was a performance that blended both sides of the game, each of which has been stressed by coach Jitka Klimkova at different stages of her tenure.
The Czech arrived with a promise to make New Zealand more attacking and free-flowing, but recently lamented her side had been “missing the grit” that was previously their defining characteristic. “We want to be a physical team that will be tough to play against,” she added.
Bowen and Stott, her sturdy centre-backs, certainly lived up to that description, with Ada Hegerberg — one of the greatest centre-forwards of her generation — enduring a thoroughly unproductive night.
“That side of it, the tenacity, was so important because players like her can get on top of you,” Bowen said. “I must admit, I am proud of my performance.
“But I couldn’t have done it without my team — none of us could — and this is something we’ve done together. Personally, I knew I could get tight to Ada because I had Stotty covering behind me. We all backed each other up so well. It was such a great team performance.”
Indeed it was, and given their miserable form of late, few — if anyone — outside the New Zealand camp saw it coming. The question is: did they?
“Honestly? We did,” Bowen insisted. “As soon as we walked out, even for the warm-up, seeing the crowd and feeling the vibe, I thought, ‘This is our day’.
“It was one of those games that, from the first whistle until the last, every one of us left it all out there on the field. No-one could have given anything more. And this is our reward. We’re stoked.”
While this World Cup, and that landmark first win, has been an obsession for every Football Fern, no-one has fixated on it like Stott. She drew on the thought of it throughout her gruelling battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, telling FIFA last year:
“You can’t get any better motivation than playing in a home World Cup.”
So, having imagined and dreamt about this moment for so long, how did the reality measure up?
“I think it was even better than I pictured it,” she said, smiling. “The idea of today, of this World Cup, definitely helped keep me motivated during those days. But now, to be in the moment, it’s just incredible.”
Whatever Stott and her team-mates do now, they will forever be part of the first New Zealand team, of either gender, to win at a senior World Cup.
But there is, of course, another record in urgent need of rewriting. They are also aware that failing to do so, by qualifying from their group for the first time — especially having now started so brilliantly — would represent a major letdown.
“We know our job isn’t done yet,” said Stott, looking ahead to Tuesday’s meeting with the Philippines. “We enjoyed the moment (after beating Norway), and I think it was right for us to do that, but the focus moves on the next morning.
“One thing’s for sure: we won’t underestimate the Philippines. They’re a good team with a good coach and I have no doubts they’ll be really organised and tough to play against.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Bowen. “At the end of the match, we were celebrating; we were emotional because, yeah, the monkey’s off our back now with that first win.
“But I was also walking round everyone saying, ‘Ok, that’s one win. Now it’s on to the next’. And yeah, we want to go into this game on a high, confident after what we’ve done, but totally focused on getting a result. This has been a great start for us. But now we need to get out of the group.”
Acknowledgement: Story supplied by FIFA.
Game played on Thursday July 20, 2023
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
New Zealand 1 (Hannah Wilkinson 48′)