World Cup in Australia and New Zealand begins: Matildas and Ferns ready for kick-off

Football fans in Australia and New Zealand are in the starting blocks for the FIFA World Cup, the biggest women’s sporting event in the world. For the first time, a world senior football tournament will be held in these southern hemisphere countries.

Football is not the number one, two or even three national sport in Australia and New Zealand. The people of these countries are known for their love of sport, but it’s usually rugby, Australia dominate football and cricket. Nevertheless, in 2020, when their borders were closed to tourists, both countries won the right to host the World Cup. This is partly for an economic reason. The World Cup is expected to bring in over €340m, a huge boost for the local economy. Also, the popularity of women’s football in these countries was already on the rise, but the hope was and is that by hosting the World Cup, the opportunities for women in professional football will increase.

Especially in Australia exist around the national team, the Matilda, high expectations. They face Ireland on Thursday at a sold-out stadium in Sydney. Around 80,000 spectators attend the game. In total, more than one million tickets were sold for this World Cup.

Australian Sam Kerr has been shining on billboards, in commercials and on radio and television for weeks. The 29-year-old striker celebrates her goals with a backflip, making her a crowd favorite. With 63 goals in 120 appearances, she is Australia’s all-time top scorer. Last year, she passed her Men’s National Team teammate Tim Cahill, the Footballoos.

This led to an article in the Australian newspaper The Telegraph, claiming that this performance did not make her an “equal” to Cahill. “I can’t believe in 2023 someone dares to write this while young girls are reading this,” Kerr says in the documentary series Matildas: The world at their feet.

Her anger at the derogatory article is exemplary of the responsibility the players feel to be an example for girls and women. “I only had male role models when I was young,” Kerr writes in her book. My journey to the World Cup, recently published. Now she wants to be a role model for girls around the world.

For years, the Matildas have been fighting for more equality in the sport. Last week, they called on world football association FIFA in a video message to match the prize money. The prize pool this year is over €130m, a nice improvement on the €26m FIFA made available during the 2019 World Cup in France. But the men’s teams were allowed to hand out 392 million euros to Qatar at the end of last year.

Read also: In Aotearoa New Zealand, the Maori language is experiencing a revival

New Zealand

In New Zealand, the World Cup is much less lively than in Australia, partly because the national team, the soccer fern, is at the bottom of the world ranking. The World Cup opener between New Zealand and Norway will be played in Auckland on Thursday at a stadium also used for rugby and cricket. At least 40,000 visitors bought a ticket for the match, a record for football in New Zealand.

Upon arrival at Auckland Airport, visitors are greeted with World Cup banners in English and Spanish te reo Maori, the language of the Maori. The land is also called Aotearoa, which means “land of the long white cloud” in the native language. In recent years, this name has been increasingly used, not only on the street, but also in government documents, in the media and on passports. The Maori party Te Pati Maori has called on the government to replace all town and place names with the original Maori names. This is why these original names are also found in the World Cup calendar.

New Zealand player Ali Riley (right) in an exhibition game against Vietnam. AP Photo/John Cowpland

The Dutch national team plays its three group matches in New Zealand. As of the start of this week, the Orange has been in Tauranga, a city of around 130,000 people on the North Island, around three hours drive from Auckland. Due to the large distance and travel costs, far fewer Dutch fans are expected than usual for such an important tournament. Nevertheless, an “Orange fan walk” is organized for Dutch competitions.

About 40,000 Dutch people live in New Zealand and about 150,000 people of Dutch descent. The KNVB football association has tried in recent weeks, in particular through leaflet campaigns, to bring as many as possible to Orange matches.

Indigenous players

FIFA has also been criticized for its lack of programs and sponsorship for indigenous footballers. Due to the disadvantaged position of Maori and Aboriginal communities, it is much more difficult for them to reach the top of football. Human rights activists believe that FIFA, as the world football association, has an obligation to provide a platform for the disadvantaged indigenous population.

In protest, Maori and Aboriginal football teams recently signed a so-called football treaty and decided to hold their own tournament. Hawaii native footballers have joined in this effort. Indigenous associations are calling on FIFA President Gianni Infantino to do more than fly Maori and Aboriginal flags at World Cup matches and name Indigenous names of host cities. According to them, it is only symbolic politics.

Despite the criticism, the start of the tournament is highly anticipated. Sam Lewis, sports reporter for Australian public broadcaster ABC, believes the true legacy of this World Cup will only become visible in the years to come. “These are the generations of children who will take inspiration from this World Cup, take up football themselves and give women’s football a future,” she said.

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