Sports

New Zealand’s suddenly popular Women’s World Cup team seeks spot in knockout rounds

New Zealand is potentially one win away from advancing to the knockout stage of the Women’s World Cup for the first time in team history and the tournament co-hosts have quickly embraced their Football Ferns.

A day after New Zealand opened the first 32-team Women’s World Cup with a victory over Norway, the Sky Tower in Auckland was lit up to say “FERN FEVER” with a photo of forward Hannah Wilkinson celebrating her goal.

Although the country is more famous for rugby, the Ferns are winning over the Kiwis.

“I’m not surprised that everyone’s on board because it is such an incredible game and I think despite all the adversity, we’re such an incredible team,” defender CJ Bott said. “We’ve got a lot to prove and we just want to inspire a nation.”

Standing in the way of the Football Ferns’ historic moment is the Philippines, which lost its Group A opening match to Switzerland. The teams meet Tuesday in Wellington, the New Zealand capital.

The Ferns have seen adversity during the tournament. The morning of the tournament opener, a gunman killed two people in a shooting at a construction site in downtown Auckland near some of the team hotels. The gunman also died in the attack.

Then the New Zealand squad was evacuated from its hotel last weekend because of several small, suspicious fires. A 34-year-old man was arrested on arson charges.

The Ferns have blocked out the distractions, and don’t want to get too caught up in their new national attention. The 1-0 victory over Norway was New Zealand’s first ever win in a Women’s World Cup game.

“It’s a job well done. It’s a tick box and we move forward to the Philippines and we’ve still got work and we’ve still got things to focus on,” Bott said.

She’s watched Wilkinson’s goal “over 100 times” and said she still gets goosebumps.

“There’s always a certain amount of pressure, but I think that, if anything, it’s given us the boost that we need and I think we’ve taken a lot of confidence from that as well,” Bott said.

The Philippines players have pressure, too.

Making their debut in the turnament, the Filipinas dropped their opener to Switzerland, 2-0.

“We belong, and we think we can compete and be at this level,” coach Alen Stajcic said. “It’s very hard when you’re from non-footballing nations in Southeast Asia. Just 18 months ago it was our first-ever win against Thailand and our first-ever win against Vietnam, and Myanmar. And now we are at a World Cup and we’re playing against Switzerland, New Zealand and Norway.”

The Philippines enter the game in last place in Group A. The Ferns are tied on points with Switzerland, which is in top spot based on goal differential.

SWITZERLAND-NORWAY

Switzerland snapped a seven-game streak without a win before its opening match victory over the Philippines and will try to take command of Group A with a Tuesday meeting against Norway in Hamilton, New Zealand.

The 2-0 opening match victory was Switzerland’s fourth shutout in its last seven games, and after reaching the knockout round at its only only previous World Cup in 2015, La Nati can again advance with a game to spare if they beat Norway and the Philippines loses to New Zealand.

“We know some of the formations in the Norwegian team left some gaps. We have to play and make use of these gaps,” coach Inka Grings said. “We are courageous. We are ready. We’ve got the opportunities to be annoying to them.”

Norway, meanwhile, is at risk of being eliminated.

That would be disastrous for a Norway team that won the title in 1995 and has reached the knockout rounds in seven of the previous eight World Cup finals.

Vilde Boe Risa could get a start for Norway after going on as a substitute against New Zealand, and if she does, it would allow Guro Reiten to move to left wing, the position she typically plays when competing for Chelsea.

Norway leading scorer Ada Hegerbeg, who has 42 goals for her country, will be looking to get on the board for the first time at this tournament.

COLOMBIA-SOUTH KOREA

Colombia and South Korea will be the last two teams to finally get on the field for this Women’s World Cup when the nations meet Tuesday in Sydney in a Group H match.

Colombia is back in the tournament after failing to qualify in 2019 for its third World Cup appearance. The South Americans earned a spot last year through Copa America, which doubled as a qualifying tournament and Colombia only needed to be one of the top three teams to secure its berth.

Las Cafeteras beat Argentina in the semifinal to qualify but lost 1-0 to Brazil in the final, finishing as runners-up for the fourth time in their Copa America history. They entered the World Cup coming off a 2-2 draw against China earlier this month, but rain washed out the Central American and Caribbean Games before that, costing them four warm-up games.

Then a friendly less than two weeks ago against Ireland was abandoned after only 20 minutes because of what the Irish said was the “overly physical” nature of the match.

Linda Caicedo, who plays for Real Madrid, will be the key for Colombia as it tries to make it to the knockout stage for the second time.

As a player, you prepare for these moments, so, the fact that (Tuesday) is our debut really fills me with very nice, very positive energy,” she said. “I only hope to do things well as a player and that my teammates can also enjoy it. It’s a World Cup, you don’t live this every day. I hope that we can be very happy, be victorious and continue this World Cup on the right foot.”

South Korea qualified for its third consecutive World Cup as the runner-up in last year’s Asian Cup. South Korea made it to the knockout stage in 2015 before it was eliminated by France, and the team has one win, one draw and eight losses in its 10 previous World Cup games.

The team is led by Colin Bell, who became the first foreign coach to lead South Korea when he was hired in 2019. Bell, who is English, uses a high intensity style in his coaching and will lean on Ji So-Yun. The former Chelsea midfielder is one of the most prolific scorers and experienced players on the team with nearly 150 appearances.

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