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There and back again: A tale from the 2023 Women’s World Cup

These are the first-hand highlights (and low points) from New Zealand

USA v Vietnam: Group E - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Photo by Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images

Three years ago in the summer of 2020, when FIFA announced that the Women’s World Cup 2023 would be hosted by Australia and New Zealand, the world was still in a pretty precarious place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I can remember being so excited about the potential of going to two countries I have always wanted to visit to watch the sport I love so much, but also feeling unsure if the tournament would even be able to happen. Nevertheless, I started planning that day to go.

Three years later, I was able to go to New Zealand for a month to watch the tournament as well as see amazing wildlife and landscapes and learn and experience so much about the country and culture.

If I had to sum up my adventure in just a few words, I could say it matched the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 slogan: “Beyond Greatness.”

It was incredible. And it would take pages and pages to tell you all about it, so I will try to give a shortened version of highlights. But to start, I will give you a bit about my history with the FIFA World Cup.

FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 - my view before the game from Eden Park in Auckland New Zealand for the Spain vs Sweden semi-final

The FIFA World Cup

When I was younger, as a half Italian, half American that spent most of the year in the United States, there were very few opportunities for me to watch soccer. However, there was always the World Cup, and I think it was what started my obsession with the sport. The World Cup was also pretty much the only time I could see women playing back then.

The first World Cup I clearly remember was the men’s tournament in 1990. I was in Italy, the host country, that summer visiting my family and although I did not actually go to any of the games, I could watch the games projected onto a big screen at our small town’s soccer field. Up to the semifinals, it was pure joy — cars driving by honking late into the night, newspapers plastered everyday with player’s faces — you could feel the fervor constantly. Everything was calcio and the mondiali. But what I will really never forget is when Italy lost to Argentina in the semifinals in penalties. Sitting there in a crowd of destitute people, it was a poignant moment in my young life. It sunk in deep. But it did not deter me. I think it must be like a gambling addiction, except you are gambling with your feelings; once you get the taste of supporting your team and they are winning, when they lose, you are willing to do it all over again no matter how much it hurts, just for the chance to feel the euphoria of winning.

(I would love to hear what your first world cup memories are!)

Soccer - World Cup Italia 90
Ciao, the official mascot for the 1990 men’s world cup
Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 in Australia and New Zealand

Needless to say, I have watched every World Cup, men’s and women’s, since 1990. However, the Women’s World Cup in 2023 is the first one I have really been to, aside from one group stage game in the women’s 2019 tournament in France. There are many reasons why it took me so long — feasibility being the top one — but I guess one could say the stars aligned for 2023.

This Women’s World Cup was the first with a 32-team format, and the first to be co-hosted by two countries. It also felt really special to me because women’s football has been getting so much more deserved attention these past few years. Women’s leagues and tournaments are becoming more easily accessible to watch on TV and stream online, attendance records are being broken all over the world, and funding is increasing. But beyond those numbers, I agree with Sarai Bareman, FIFA’s Chief Women’s Football Officer, when she said in 2021 “Women’s football is really a cultural movement.” And I think as any movement goes, it is dynamic and there is more change needed. (More on that later…)

I mentioned stars aligning to give me the opportunity to go to the tournament, and there were also FIFA stars aligning when the schedule came out. The United States women’s national team (USWNT) and the Italian women’s national team were both in groups that were playing primarily in New Zealand, and they had the same travel schedule for their first two group stage games, starting in Auckland’s Eden Park and then going to Wellington’s Sky Stadium. So I could easily see both my favorite teams play, all in the north island of New Zealand! I got tickets to go to U.S.-Vietnam, Italy-Argentina, U.S.-Netherlands, and Italy-Sweden. Wanting to also do a bit of travel in the south island, I did not get the tickets to the third group stage games or the round of 16 matches which were being played in Australia, but I did get tickets to the quarter and semifinal games in Wellington and Auckland.

Highlights and Low Points

Below are my personal highlights of the tournament, in chronological order. I had others from the Australia side of the bracket, including Linda Caicedo’s goal for Colombia against Germany (which is my goal of the tournament) and Australian beating France in penalties to advance to the semis, but here I will focus on the New Zealand side. I also matched these highlights with some corresponding moments of low points.

Highlight No. 1: The New Zealand Ferns winning their first world cup game ever against favored Norway in the opening match of the tournament to a record setting crowd.

I was not at the game but it was my first day in New Zealand and I watched on TV, and what an exciting opener! I really grew to love the country over the month I was there, and although it was likely a biased sub-sample, all the New Zealanders I interacted with were so nice and helpful. It was also really great to see the country rally around their women’s football team.

New Zealand v Norway: Group A - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023
New Zealand Football Ferns celebrating their goal against Norway in the tournament opening game in Auckland’s Eden Park
Photo by Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Low point: New Zealand’s loss to Philippines. When I flew from Auckland to Wellington to go to the U.S. and Italy’s second group stage games, I sat next to a guy that, based on our conversation about the World Cup, must have been some higher up government sports director official. He was going to Wellington to watch the Ferns play the Philippines and was nervous — I (incorrectly) told him that he shouldn’t worry; given how they started the tournament the Ferns would surely win! Well, they didn’t and then, after only tying Switzerland, narrowly lost their chance to advance out of group stage due to goal differential.

Highlight No. 2: Cristiana Girelli scoring the game-winning goal for Italy in their opening group stage game against Argentina.

Wow! What a game to be at! I must say, however, that it was the Argentina fans that created the atmosphere. I got to the stadium as soon as the doors opened, and compared to the USWNT’s first game I went to where it was already filled with U.S. fans, I was one of the few people standing by the tunnel to see the Italian players come out to the pitch in their pre-match suits. And as I walked around the stadium and to my seat, I didn’t hear a single person speaking Italian.

Italian women’s national team pre-match Italia vs Argentina Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand

Where were the Italian fans? You could not miss the Argentina fans. A large group of them took over the section behind one of the goals, and they had a band playing and were singing and dancing the entire game. In fact, that ended up being the loudest game I went to in the whole tournament.

Regarding the Italian team, I was a bit surprised by the lineup, but I guess not really since it appeared that head coach Melina Bertolini wanted to shake things up and bring in younger players based on the decisions made for the 23-player roster. (Which did not include longtime Italy and Juventus Women captain Sara Gama). Inter Milan’s Francesca Durante started in goal and youngsters Giulia Dragoni (Barcelona) and Chiara Beccari (Juventus) were making their World Cup debuts. Barbara Bonansea, Arianna Caruso, Lisa Boattin and Cecilia Salvai also started, giving a total of five Juventus players in the starting lineup. Overall, Italy played reasonably well, but let Argentina have chances and about equal possession.

When it came to the goal, I would have put Girelli in earlier to give her more time and chances to score, but apparently she did not need it because she scored within four minutes of getting onto the field! I know it is easy to say this afterwards, but I swear that I knew she would score when she came on. Her strength and style of play is just what the game needed. I can’t really remember much, because I was jumping up and down going crazy, but I think that might have been the only moment of the game when the Argentina fans were quieted a bit…

Italy v Argentina: Group G - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023
Cristiana Girelli celebrates her 87th minute goal against Argentina in Italy’s first group stage game in Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand.
Photo by Daniela Porcelli/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Low point: Italy’s loss to Sweden: My joy of Girelli’s goal against Argentina lasted until about the last 10 minutes of the first half of the Italy-Sweden game. Italy were playing pretty decently to start the game, but it all fell apart with Sweden scoring three goals in seven minutes. Those corners … ugh. Those goals also provided evidence that probably about 90% of the stadium was there for Sweden — with every one scored the crowd roared.

Sweden vs Italy, 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup
Sweden scoring against Italy on a corner in their 0-5 defeat in Wellington Regional Stadium, New Zealand
Set Number: X164388 TK1

The day after the game, I was at the airport to fly to the south island, and as I headed to the security line, the entire Italian women’s team and coaching staff walked by. After I got over my initial shock, I got in line after them and proceeded to spend the next hour waiting at the gate with them. I was a bit torn on whether to go speak to any of the players, but they clearly were in a somber mood after the 5-0 defeat, and there were FIFA staff that looked like they were ready to pounce if anyone bothered them, so in the end I just stayed in my seat. It was still pretty neat to just be that close to them all. And then, after the Italian team boarded their plane, the FIFA officials moved to the next gate where I then got to see the entire Japanese team disembark.

I suppose I should also mention the loss to South Africa as a lowpoint as an Italian fan, and it certainly was, but somehow it did not carry the same weight as the loss to Sweden. As a Juventus and Italian fan, though, it was such a bummer for Arianna Caruso to get that game-tying goal only for Italy not being able to hold onto the tie they needed to advance to the round of 16.

Ultimately, the Italian women’s national team did not have a good tournament and were unable to recreate the magic of 2019. Bertolini resigned shortly afterwards, and would likely have been asked to leave if not. I think there were mistakes made that didn’t need to happen. Again, it is easy to say things afterward, but to me it was a mistake not bringing Gama — it seemed to disrupt the unity of the team. And while it was exciting to see young players get experience (in particular Dragoni), the backpass that Benedetta Orsi made that led to her own goal in the South Africa game would not have been made by a more experienced player like Gama (and also, why did Orsi start over Cecilia Salvai in that game??). It also seemed that the players were not happy with Bertolini and the FIGC, posting identical social media posts after the South African game loss that provided evidence of this.

Highlight No. 3: Lindsey Horan scoring for the USWNT against the Netherlands to tie up their second group stage game.

Just before scoring the goal, Horan had been arguing with Netherland’s Daniëlle van de Donk and the referee took as much time as I have ever seen to talk to the players (it felt like five minutes!), so Horan was super pumped up when she forcefully headed the ball in off the corner. The stadium erupted and was pretty darn awesome to be a part of and to see Horan’s passion so up close as she celebrated her goal.

USA v Netherlands - FIFA Women’s World Cup
USWNT Lindsey Horan celebrating game-tying goal against the Netherlands in Wellington Regional Stadium, New Zealand
Photo by Jose Hernandez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Low point: USWNT losing in penalties to Sweden. Oh geez, talk about suffering, this one was gutting. I was in Dunedin for the U.S.-Sweden round of 16 game (which was played in Melbourne, Australia). Dunedin is the second largest city in the south island and surrounded by amazing landscapes, but on a Sunday night at 9pm, there was literally only one bar open showing the game - shout out to The Craic Irish Tavern! I am pretty certain the 20 or so people crammed into the little bar consisted of every US fan that happened to be in the city that night.

I must say, however, that the devastating loss was tempered a bit by a highlight from the night before. No goals were scored for this one; rather it was seeing kororā (little penquins) returning home from the ocean at dusk on the Otago Peninsula. I promise you even if you are not a wildlife person, you would have been captivated by these little chunks, the smallest penguins in the world, riding in on waves at dusk and then tumbling around on the beach before waddling their way up to their burrows for the night.

Highlights Nos. 4 and 5: Watching Spain win against Netherlands and then Sweden in the quarter and semifinal games.

With Italy and then the U.S. out of the tournament, I needed another team to pull for. I have always like the Spain’s style of play, and given the similarity in language to Italian, I felt like they were the natural choice. So seeing them play in both the quarter and semifinals live in Wellington and then Auckland was a definite highlight for me. As a midfielder, pass-minded player myself, I really enjoyed watching them play their possession game and, man, those second goals they scored to win both those games! Spain’s Salma Paralluelo, who is just 19, was impressive. And Olga Carmona’s banger off the corner against Sweden was something else.

Spain’s Olga Carmona celebrating her game winning goal in the semi-final against Sweden in Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand.
Photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP via Getty Images

Highlight No. 6: Spain winning the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup!

I was really interested to see how Spain and England would match up in the final. I felt that with Germany and Brazil out so early on Australia side of the bracket, England had a bit of an easier route (and even though England was winning, they were eking out most of those wins). At this point in the tournament my journeys across New Zealand were done and I was back in the states dealing with some crazy jet lag, so I watched the final on my couch. I thought it was a great game and very fitting end a great tournament, and of course, I was happy Spain won. I think they clearly deserved to win and outplayed England.

Spain v England: Final - FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Photo by Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images

Low point: The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF). It sucks that there has to be a low point for the final and I really wish I didn’t have to write this part, but it is needed. This was a final that saw the Spanish women’s side win for the first time, a deserved win for a fantastic team and tournament. A final that sold out Stadium Australia, that millions of people watched all over the world. This was a moment for women’s football to shine (and it did!). I won’t rehash everything that happened before the world cup and during and after the finals award ceremony regarding the RFEF, and I assume most of you have heard about it on the news. It is just disgusting. If you need an overview I would recommend Just Women’s Sports or the Guardian’s coverage.

FIFA Women’s World Cup 2027 in … ?

I don’t want to end on that lowpoint. I will end by saying, mark your calendars for May 2024! FIFA will announce who will host the next Women’s World Cup in 2027, with bids in from Belgium/Netherlands/Germany, Brazil, South Africa and the USA/Mexico. I hope that stars will align again and I will be able to go, and that in four years time the movement that is women’s football will have achieved that much more.