Our writers reflect on a FIFA Women’s World Cup that exceeded all expectations

Suddenly, it’s all over. A month of scintillating football, drama and emotion that undoubtedly changed the perception of football and, in particular, the women’s game.

Yes, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup exceeded expectations with 64 matches that drew record crowds, television audiences and raised the profile of the sport.

Friends of Football’s writers were at many of the 29 games played in New Zealand.

Here, they share their memories of the tournament, and their hopes for what lies ahead …

Main photo: Eden Park held the opening ceremony for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Photo credit: Eden Park.

Personal highlights

Joan Grey

Joan Grey

The magic moment for me was the echo of the final whistle on the opening night at Eden Park.

New Zealand had just secured their historic first-ever World Cup tournament victory, men’s or women’s.

I don’t think many people realized the magnitude of that accomplishment.

The Football Ferns were clear underdogs in that match; it was a David versus Goliath scenario. They were rated 8 to 1 outsiders at the TAB.

For one enchanting night, our Football Ferns put on a stellar performance, unlike any performance I’d ever seen them play.

They made history in front of 42,000 fans.

Marnie Strombom

The opening game remains my personal highlight.

It culminated in the majority of the sold-out crowd at Eden Park remaining after the final whistle, clapping as the Ferns circled the field to the sounds of Six60.

We all began to believe, as the Ferns had beaten a major European team, with a magnificent goal.

The naysayers about women’s football and some of the scepticism about New Zealand’s ability to host such a major women’s tournament, immediately began to dissipate.

Auckland’s Eden Park was filled to capacity for games with more than 43,000 fans packing into the national stadium.

Rachel Lilburn

My son and I headed to Hamilton to see Argentina v Sweden; and to Auckland for the semi-final.

Sitting with 43,000 other fans at Eden Park watching Spanish vs Sweden, soaking in the atmosphere of a World Cup semi-final, roaring off his seat for the goals — it was exciting, fun, fantastic football.

Half the boys in my son’s team went to at least one game; and/or watched more on TV. We talked about the games and the goals and the results at trainings. They can name several players.

If that was being repeated in clubs throughout the country, then I hope it bodes well for a sea change in attitudes for the next generation of footballers and their families.

READ MORE: The power of role models and how to change our bias towards women’s sport >>>>

Josh Easby

My favourite moment was when the captains met in the middle for the start of the tournament’s opening game.

New Zealand’s Ali Riley and Norway’s Maren Mjelde smiled, shook hands … and then embraced, a hug of joy and anticipation, despite the nerves they no doubt felt.

For me, it signalled the start of a tournament in which the joy of playing would not be overwhelmed by the need to win.

Jonno Ross

So many to choose from!

I enjoyed the success of teams like South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco and Jamaica.

Jamaica made it through to the knockout rounds for the first time after knocking out Brazil, an amazing accomplishment from the Reggae Girls, who had to rely on crowdfunding and donations to pay their way to the tournament. Hopefully, their federation sees them for what they’re worth, and funds them properly in future.

New Zealand’s Hannah Wilkinson celebrates her goal. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / Phototek.

My personal highlight has to be the Ferns’ opening game of the World Cup against Norway. The wait was finally over, and the first-ever senior FIFA World Cup was being hosted in our country. Nobody expected our Kiwi team to get a result against the former world champions, but did they surprise us!

From a goal kick, Katie Bowen sprays one to the right to C.J Bott, who offloads to Indiah-Paige Riley. She slips it through to Jacqui Hand down the wing who chases the ball, takes a quick touch and whips an absolute beaut of a cross just outside of the six-yard box for Hannah Wilkinson to punch it in the back of the net.

I’m sure that was the tournament highlight for many New Zealanders, but for me, it was extra special.

One of my most cherished friends had just made history — she scored the goal that secured New Zealand’s first win at a World Cup.

I couldn’t be more proud of her!

Japan beat Norway in front of more than 33,000 fans at Wellington’s Sky Stadium.

Luke Austin

It’s not often Wellington’s Sky Stadium sells out for a sporting event, so to be able to experience crowds of 30,000+ several times over the past month at the games hosted in the capital was a highlight for me.

It was great to see supporters from the travelling nations backing their teams and bringing a vibrant atmosphere to matchdays.

What stood out

Joan Grey

The high number of 0-0 draws at this 2023 World Cup. There were 10 goalless draws out of the 64 games played.

In the eight previous editions of the Women’s World Cup, there have been no more than two goalless draws at a tournament.

Though this year’s World Cup saw a greater number of games played, with the number of teams expanded to 32, the number of goalless draws was at a new level.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

It reflects progress in the women’s game.

Teams’ defensive abilities have undoubtedly improved, as has the skill of the goalkeepers. With women’s football developing rapidly in so many countries, the teams at this World Cup are much more evenly-matched than in past tournaments.

Defensive play has improved markedly since the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, demonstrated by the 55 clean sheets kept in the 64 games.

Jonno Ross

Jonno Ross.

What stood out for me, was they way New Zealand got behind women’s football during the tournament.

If I’m honest, I was worried our country wasn’t ready for such an event.

I thought Australia was going to show us up, and maybe it was a mistake for us to co-host.

I was happily proved wrong.

More than 700,000 tickets were sold at our four venues; more than 165,000 fans went to Fans Festivals in the host cities, and the television audiences were through the roof.

In a rugby-dominant country, people were watching football with genuine interest and support, and every other sport took a back seat.

For a month, at least, football in New Zealand was number one.

Marnie Strombom

The technical ability and wonderful first touch of so many players.

Though Japan were unable to match the strength and height of Sweden, they were a joy to watch.

The game at Eden Park resulted in so many cheering for Japan due to their wonderful skills, tenacity and the spirit with which they played.

Luke Austin

It was refreshing to see so few ‘diving’ players during the Women’s World Cup.

Players who take theatrical tumbles are a source of frustration in the men’s game, and they should take something away from the women’s efforts to stay on their feet and to get on with the game.

We saw women officials running the games, including New Zealand’s Anna-Marie Keighley (third from right) and Sarah Jones. Photo: FIFA.

Rachel Lilburn

Our football club here in Taupo isn’t big enough to support a female league. Our girls play in mixed (mainly boys) teams during the season, and girls’ teams are formed for some festivals and tournaments.

For our girls, not only getting to see women as the stars of the show on the pitch, but also having women referees and officials cannot be underestimated. Our young boys see themselves everywhere — our girls do not.

I hope the power of our girls having these visuals of what they can aspire to in front of them lives on as a legacy, and I hope coaches and club administrators can see the benefit in creating female spaces for football.

The Fantails initiative being rolled out around the country is an example of a legacy that has the potential to hugely impact the next generation of female footballers coming through.

Josh Easby

The refereeing. A good game is usually one where you don’t recall much about the part played by the referee.

Throughout the tournament, the officials generally did their job well and without being the centre of attention.

The referees were one of the key reasons the games were free-flowing and exciting.

… and one more thing

Olga Carmona’s shot is about to sneak inside England’s post to give Spain their history-making first Women’s World Cup trophy.

Jonno Ross

The quality of football was top drawer. It far exceeded my expectations, and it shows how far the women’s game has come in a relatively short period of time.

If I could encourage one thing … just because the World Cup is over, please don’t stop!

Continue watching football, both the men and the women.

Follow the Ferns. Follow the All Whites.

Follow the Wellington Phoenix women’s and men’s teams.

Don’t let packed-out stadiums be a one-off event. Let’s fill those seats and support football in our country.

Football is on the rise in New Zealand, and with our support, our teams will only get better.

Logan Smith.

Logan Smith

Dunedin’s role in this Women’s World Cup hopefully has inspired many in the city and the region to play, watch and get involved in football.

Crowds largely impressed and surpassed pre-tournament expectations, with local fans getting to adopt new teams and others getting a rare chance to support their national sides in the flesh.

Facilities at Tahuna Park, Logan Park, Memorial Park and the Caledonian Ground have been upgraded and can now be enjoyed by the local football community.

READ MORE: How Women’s World Cup football has stirred enthusiasm in the Deep South >>>>

Luke Austin

We know there is plenty of passion for the game within the New Zealand football community, but it was great to see how this World Cup has helped develop a new interest in the game for so many.

More people supporting the beautiful game in our country can only be a good thing and will hopefully allow the game to grow in New Zealand.

Marnie Strombom

Marnie Strombom.

How far has women’s football come, and how far will it go?

I used to stand on the sideline in Taranaki and watch my brother as he played football; my choice was limited to netball and backyard football.

Now, my daughter can play football in the premier boys league in Auckland and Eden Park is sold out for consecutive games of unbelievable women’s football.

I never thought it possible.

Thank you to the coaches — men and women — who believed in girls’ football and made sure they could take the field.

This is for you.

Josh Easby

We know better facilities and more young players will be key legacies from this tournament. But how can the sport build on the levels of interest from spectators, and turn them into fans for domestic and A-League football?

Surely, the crowd numbers — more than 700,000 tickets sold for 29 games in New Zealand — show the true size of the football community is much larger than the sport may have thought.

Finding more ways to activate them is a huge opportunity.

The Football Ferns set the tournament alight with their opening game win against former world champions Norway. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

Joan Grey

I loved that the Women’s World Cup was appreciated for what it was — women’s football.

Some people can’t resist drawing comparisons between women’s and men’s football, pointing out the disparity between the levels of football.

We female footballers don’t disagree; men are faster and stronger.

But women’s football isn’t trying to compete with the men’s game.

Women’s football is its own game with its own style.

I loved that the FIFA Women’s World Cup allowed the spotlight to shine on women’s football without the male comparison.

The tournament has inspired a new generation of football players and supporters. Photo credit: Fiona Goodall – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images.

Rachel Lilburn

I loved the (French Telecom Company) Orange ad that went viral in June.

Showcasing action clips of Les Bleus, including Antoine Griezman and Kylian MBappe, it’s revealed at the end to be a deep fake, with the male player’s faces edited onto clips of Les Blues, the French women’s team.

The company’s stated intention was to prove that “women’s football is as technical as men’s football”.

It was a really simple and clever way of challenging stereotypes of women’s sport, and women’s football.

Enjoy it here:

Our team

Stories published on this website are provided by a growing team of volunteer writers throughout New Zealand.

They include:

Joan Grey

Joan Grey is Auckland-based, covers women’s football and plays for Franklin United.

Jonno Ross

A former U-20 international goalkeeper, Jonno Ross’ main focus is reporting on regional leagues in the north.

Rachel Lilburn

Taupo-based Rachel Lilburn specialises in feature stories that cover topics including junior and youth football.

Logan Smith

Based in Dunedin, Logan Smith writes about South Island football, including the Women’s South Island League and the men’s Southern League.

Luke Austin

Wellington’s Luke Austin follows club football in the capital and provides coverage of the Central League.

Marnie Strombom

Marnie Strombom is a recent addition to the Friends of Football team. Her first story was an in-depth interview with emerging women’s club coach Ben Bate.

Josh Easby

Waikato-based Josh Easby edits the Friends of Football website and is a long-time writer about men’s and women’s football.

Want to join our team?

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