Football Ferns take on Norway in daunting opening fixture of global tournament

Football Ferns take on Norway in daunting opening fixture of global tournament
Katie McCabe in action during an Ireland team training ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australia, 19 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Dan Himbrechts)

Fifa Women’s World Cup co-hosts New Zealand will aim to make their mark against a resilient Norway in the opening game of the tournament.

The Fifa Women’s World Cup kicks off on Thursday, 20 July. Co-host nation New Zealand launch their campaign with a daunting fixture against Norway, who are in a transition period.

The Football Ferns’ Fifa world ranking has slipped to 26, its lowest, from a high of 16 in 2015. Making the knockout rounds for the first time, from a group containing Norway, the Philippines and Switzerland, is the ambition. But the omens are not good.

New faces

Injuries have opened doors for exciting newcomers such as striker Milly Clegg. The 18-year-old attracted the coach’s interest after “brilliant performances” at the under-17 and under-20 World Cups. Much will depend on the veterans though, including captain and right-back Ali Riley (capped 152 times). 

At 35, Riley will play in her fifth World Cup. She has been in fine form for her US club, Angel City, and is optimistic the national team will deliver for fans.

“I hope that we live up to the slogan of ‘Beyond Greatness’ by creating a legacy for the Ferns who come after us,” she said.

Regarded as the Ferns’ best player for her speed and aggression, much will also rest on the shoulders of CJ Bott. Her presence was sorely missed as she recovered from injuries during the build-up to the World Cup. With almost 40 caps to her name, the Leicester City player is well regarded for her defensive abilities as well as her willingness to spearhead attacks.

ferns norway

Eden Park stadium, one of the venues of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, 19 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / How Hwee Young)

She had a tough apprenticeship before proving herself as the Football Ferns’ first-choice right full-back. Bott said a home World Cup would be the pinnacle of her career.

“That’s just something that wasn’t even an option growing up,” she told Sky Sport. “No matter what team I ever play for, that’s going to be the biggest moment of my career. I’ll be so proud.”

New Zealand have played 15 matches in all World Cups and won none, so, reaching the knockout stage may be too tall an order. However, a positive start against Norway will have the nation hoping for further glory.

Norsk pride

In the Football Ferns’ way stands a Norway side that has experienced a massive transition since the 2022 Euros, where they crashed out of the group stage and suffered a humiliating 8-0 defeat against England. Out went the coach, Martin Sjögren, and in came former Norwegian international Hege Riise.

“We have to acknowledge where we stand at the moment and work from that,” Riise said upon being appointed in August 2022.

She did not have the best of starts. The day after her first squad selection, Barcelona’s Caroline Graham Hansen announced she would take a break from international duty because of fatigue.

Just weeks later, another of the team’s stars, Ada Hegerberg, was injured for seven months. The captain, Maren Mjelde, and Barça’s Ingrid Syrstad Engen have also been out for spells. Nonetheless, all four are back for the World Cup.

During the absence of these players, Riise’s “new Norway” produced decent performances in friendlies against strong teams such as the Netherlands, France, England and Sweden. By that time, they had already secured qualification for the World Cup — where they finished top of their qualification group, with no defeats.

Riise has clearly got them playing the way she wants. As midfielder Guro Reiten told TV 2 Norway after the team’s nil-all draw against France in February: “We’re difficult and annoying to play against — just like we want to be.”

The match kicks off at 9am SA time. DM


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