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New Zealand Waited For Another Goal That Would Never Arrive

New Zealand's defender #07 Ali Riley (L) and New Zealand's midfielder #12 Betsy Hassett (R) greet supporters at the end of Australia and New Zealand 2023 Women's World Cup Group A football match between Switzerland and New Zealand at Dunedin Stadium in Dunedin on July 30, 2023.
Photo by Sanka Vidanagama/AFP via Getty Images

New Zealand was in the inconceivable and aching place of being an unexpected favorite in this year's World Cup. Coming off its shocking win against Norway to open the tournament on its own turf, they made history. In the final group stage match against Switzerland all they needed was a win, and perhaps a little math (more on that in a minute), to lock in their place to advance to the knockout round of the 2023 World Cup.

The Football Ferns made another kind of history on Sunday, becoming the first host nation (or co-host in this case) to get bounced from the World Cup in the group stage, after playing the Swiss to a draw. In a match that at times felt like it was listing about for its mathematical or alchemical decisive moment, New Zealand couldn't rise to the challenge of a Swiss effort that could at best be described as clerical. The Swiss seemed more concerned with keeping a clean sheet than burying the tournament co-host to clear their way into the knockout stage.

Knowing all they needed was a draw or win to advance, Switzerland didn't want to leave much to chance, playing a 4-2-3-1 formation to choke up any attack from New Zealand that crossed midfield. One of the Fern's best chances came in the first half when forward Jacqui Hand caught a torpedo of a pass in the Swiss end for a good look on goal, only to have it neutralized by the post.

Time favored the Swiss, but a scoreless game heading into its twilight can make for tight play or become a gambler's run. And New Zealand looked more alive in the closing 20 minutes of the match; Malia Steinmetz took the team's first shot on target in the 74th minute, easily scooped up by Swiss Keeper Gaelle Thalmann. But if you were looking for omens, it wasn't a particularly good sign when Ferns manager Jitka Klimkova subbed in Gabi Rennie for striker Hannah Wilkinson, who scored the team's lone goal in the match against Norway. In the expiring minutes New Zealand threw as much as they could against the Swiss, literally in the case of two set pieces that featured keeper Victoria Esson making an appearance at the opposite end. But it was not meant to be.

Just days ago it appeared that Group A was the home for anarchy in this World Cup, after the last slate of games left the two tickets into the knockout round in anyone's hands. Since I am a probationary pool boy at best in Defector's soccer Slack, the best way I could explain the maths for Group A would be to scribble rudimentary latin on a whiteboard while making rhinoceros sounds as I wait for Wikipedia to refresh. All that's important to know is all four teams at play Sunday had a sliding scale of possible routes through to next stage. For New Zealand they needed to win outright, and not have Norway make up the goal difference. But anyone who bothered to switch channels from New Zealand/Switzerland to Norway/Philippines was met with a match that more closely resembled a meteor shower, as the Scandinavians ruthlessly pummeled the Philippines 6-0.

And just like that, the hopes of two nations were dashed and an era of European adequacy continued in the World Cup. Norway and Switzerland are waiting for the top teams out of Group C, which looks to be Spain and Japan figuring out who will be top of their class.

Whether or not football overtakes rugby in the hearts of New Zealanders (probably not), the country can take some joy from their latest World Cup run. They had set their sights as high as just getting a win this time around, with the Philippines as their most likely target. In that way they outperformed expectations, especially for a program that did not have a full time coach until Klimkova was hired in 2021. Leaving the World Cup early will always suck, but just maybe it can sting a little less when you're quite literally surrounded by the comforts of home. For New Zealand it's not the end you hoped for, but it's the finale you earned all the same.

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