Ali Riley and Footy Ferns make us believe 'anything is possible'

New Zealand's chest-thumping historic 1-0 win over Norway opened the 2023 World Cup with quite a bang.

Ali Riley and Footy Ferns make us believe 'anything is possible'
Ali Riley speaking to broadcasters after New Zealand’s historic 1-0 win over Norway

On Thursday night in Auckland, Ali Riley was at her peak on a historic night for New Zealand. A match and an occasion that will live on forever in local and global footy lore.

In the opening match of the 2023 World Cup, the Footy Ferns took care of Norway 1-0 thanks to an emphatic close-range finish from Hannah Wilkinson shortly after half-time.

That goal sealed New Zealand’s first-ever victory at a women’s World Cup on the nation’s sixth appearance in the competition.

Stalwart midfielder Ria Percival could have made it 2-0 from the penalty spot, but her effort slammed against the crossbar in the 90th minute. Thankfully, for the Kiwis, no more goals were necessary.

Norway also clanged the crossbar, with a bit of help from the fingertips of New Zealand goalkeeper Victoria Esson. Amazingly, that zippy long-range attempt from a frustrated Caroline Graham Hansen was one of just two shots on target for the Scandinavians.

Which brings us back to Riley. On the pitch, she was a solid thorn in the side of a stuttering Norway attack. An instrument that helped dull her heavily favoured opponents all night.

The Angel City FC defender, playing at left back on the night, finished the match with 50 touches, two tackles won (from a total of three tackles), three grounds duels won (from eight), eight recoveries, and one interception.

Lining up across from the revered talents of Graham Hansen, on the right-hand side of the Norway attack, a big performance from Riley was always going to be needed for New Zealand to succeed.

Early on, Riley set the tone. This was not going to be the Norwegian’s night. A big tackle - where the Kiwi initially looked well beaten but exhibited good recovery speed and tenacity - extinguished an avenue for Graham Hansen to create a big chance.

Video courtesy of FOX Sports | Twitter

It was telling that Graham-Hansen’s most penetrative runs and most dangerous shots of the match came when she switched wings and roamed down Norway’s left wide attacking channel.

On a rough night, Graham-Hansen was still Norway’s biggest threat. The isolated FC Barcelona forward was mostly left to her own devices to try and reverse the tide.

Off the pitch, Riley was also in peak form too. She gave us memorable (and meme-able) moments of candid wonder: Beaming pride during the national anthem, reactions of euphoria at full-time and inspirational disbelief in the post-match.

"I’m so so proud, we’ve been fighting for this for so long,” Riley told local broadcasters after the final whistle. “We wanted to inspire young girls, young people around this country and around the world, and I really think we did that tonight... anything is possible!"

Of course, she’s right. It hasn’t been easy.

Riley made her debut for New Zealand in 2007. 153 caps later, and having been to four consecutive World Cups in that time, this was the first time she and her country had ever tasted victory in the Group Stage.

Just last week, New Zealand ended a 10-year wait for a win of any kind on home soil. Thursday night also saw the Footy Ferns take the lead in a World Cup match for the first time since 2015.

They were the heavy underdogs going into this opener. The bookmakers had New Zealand at 5/1 to beat Norway, with many experts in the game that I trust predicting a two-to-three-to-five goal margin of victory for the Europeans.

Well, how naïve were we? I for one can hold my hand up and say I didn’t see New Zealand delivering a performance with that much verve and tempo. Whilst Norway was listless in midfield and their own worst enemy (a sadly familiar experience), there really was only one team in it.

“Authentically myself”

As a Chinese-Kiwi-American, who also has Swedish citizenship, and is the captain of the New Zealand women’s national team, for a home World Cup no less, there is a huge amount of pressure on Riley to represent a lot of people. And make all those people proud this July and August.

But tonight, she proved she just has to be herself.

“The way I’ve had the most positive impact on people is by being authentically myself,” said Riley on the Counter Pressed podcast a week before the start of the 2023 World Cup.

The defender contains multitudes. And they are all her. It was a brilliant night for Riley who looked comfortable embracing the historic moment.

What I will take away from this match is a reminder to never underestimate a team in football. Especially not a World Cup host. And especially not New Zealand in their own back garden.

When you can, always bath in the moment. Drink it in and feel it.

Multiple Champions League winners, some of the best-attacking talent in Europe, and one of the most illustrious players, Ada Hegerbeg to ever play the game couldn’t hack it on a windy chilly night in Auckland against the Footy Ferns.

Riley reminded us that “anything is possible.” That’s what it’s all about.

What a way to kick-off. The promise of a brilliant World Cup is upon us.