New Zealand Opened The World Cup With A Victory For The Ages
8:58 AM EDT on July 20, 2023
Well, that's certainly one way to win your first World Cup match ever. Entering the opening match of the tournament, on home soil, New Zealand had the seemingly unenviable task of facing Norway, one of the better teams in the field and a dark horse to win the whole thing. A funny thing happened when the match was actually played, though: New Zealand worked the Scandinavians up and down the field, to the point where it became unclear who was supposed to be the favorite. And, after 90 minutes, and a somewhat inexplicable 10 additional minutes of stoppage time, it was New Zealand that got the first goal and the first three points of the 2023 World Cup, dominating the opening match en route to a famous and historic 1-0 win in front of its home fans.
In every way possible, this was an upset. New Zealand is not as talented as Norway, who can boast five world-class players across its midfield and attacking bands. And yet, barring some bursts of dribbling prowess from Barcelona's Caroline Graham Hansen whenever she actually got any space on the ball, New Zealand was able to completely nullify the Norwegian star power by holding on to the ball and pressing Norway with ferocity every time the visitors had possession. The vaunted Norwegian midfield trio—Arsenal's Frida Maanum, Chelsea's Guro Reiten, and Barcelona's Ingrid Syrstad Engen—might as well not have suited up on Thursday, thanks to the Football Ferns deploying a simple game plan: Give them no room to breathe, and cut off all passing lanes into the attack.
That attack, featuring Graham Hansen and fellow star and former player of the year Ada Hegerberg, was then faced with a tough choice: They either had to hope that the midfield hit pinpoint passes (the trio did not supply that service), or they had to track back repeatedly to get any time on the ball. Hegerberg especially was playing more in the midfield than at the tip of the spear, and her passing was horrendous on the night. In fact, aside from an audacious seventh-minute bicycle kick attempt, Hegerberg was invisible throughout.
Her counterpart on the New Zealand was not. Hannah Wilkinson was the best player on the field until her substitution in the 86th minute. Using her height (5-foot-10) and strength, Wilkinson constantly won every 50-50 ball with Norwegian defenders, and New Zealand's support players lobbed pass after pass at Wilkinson, who obliged with runs straight at the Norway backline.
That strategy, and Wilkinson's hard work off the ball, was rewarded just three minutes after halftime: After a gorgeous ball from Indiah-Paige Riley off a goalkick, Jacqui Hand latched on to it and sprinted down the right side of New Zealand's attack, while Wilkinson motored into the box. Hand's pixel-perfect cutback across the box found her striker's right foot, and Wilkinson made a neat finish of the move for the biggest goal in New Zealand's World Cup life.
One could expect New Zealand to sit back and try to defend such a monumental lead, and for Norway to amp up the intensity to equalize and, hopefully, win. That's almost exactly the opposite of what happened for the rest of the original 90 minutes. New Zealand kept pushing hard for a second goal and the safety that comes with that, especially against a team that could have turned the match around with one kick from any of its star players. Norway, on the other hand, was content to just sit back and keep getting overrun, particularly down the left side of its defense, where the goal came from.
Sure, Norway had a couple of chances here and there, including a golden one from Maanum in the 59th minute, but the action was coming from New Zealand for most of the match. It took Norway until the 81st minute to even record a shot on target. (What a shot it was, to be fair, as Tuva Hansen's rocket was barely saved onto the crossbar by New Zealand goalkeeper Victoria Esson.)
Hansen almost sealed the match in the other direction soon after, though, as she got caught with her arm away from her body just as the ball got rocketed into it. After a lengthy, but not that lengthy, VAR review, the penalty was given, and up stepped Ria Percival for New Zealand. Unfortunately for her, she got just a bit too much juice on her spot kick, and clanged it off the crossbar to keep Norway in the game:
That should have been a gift for the Norwegians, who have enough talent to score on a whim, as long as they push for it. Really, though, Norway didn't show any urgency until the 92nd minute, when Vilde Bøe Risa and Graham Hansen realized that time was short (though, not as short as it should have been; seriously, where did this referee get nine minutes of stoppage time from?) and carried a cramping and laughing Thea Bjelde off the field before unceremoniously dropping her on the sideline.
After that, it seemed like Norway finally got its shit together, but it was just too little, too late. Hegerberg had a good chance at the center of the box in the 94th minute, though her mishit fell to Reiten, who put it wide. Barring that chance, New Zealand was mostly airtight at the back, with captain Ali Riley taking most of the credit here for how well she shut down and pushed back Graham Hansen. Combined with Wilkinson's forward dominance and the disappearing act by Norway's midfield, it made for what really was a pretty easy win for New Zealand.
Sure, they made it a bit more nerve-wracking than it should have been simply by not finishing their own chances, but the Football Ferns finally won a match at the World Cup, not by chance or happenstance, but by well-drilled dominance of an opponent all too willing to let them control the run of play. Wilkinson's goal will live on in New Zealand soccer history, but the entire performance should be celebrated for years to come. It's not over yet, though: With a win against the supposedly toughest opponent in the group, New Zealand now hold its destiny in its own hands.
Can they repeat this performance against Switzerland and the Philippines? Hell, after the way that they beat Norway, nine points in total seems about as likely as finishing with just the three they earned on Thursday. What a way to kick off the tournament in front of the home faithful: With fire and brimstone and a well-deserved victory on the back of Hannah Wilkinson and a rock-solid defense.