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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — In a country where rugby and cricket reign, soccer was king that day.

The first match of the FIFA World Cup, men’s or women’s, to take place in the Oceania region (New Zealand opened the tournament against Norway here a couple of hours before co-hosts Australia opened against the Republic of Ireland in Sydney) was greeted with excitement befitting the historic moment.

Despite intermittent drizzle and wintry temperatures in the 50s when the match began at Eden Park, there was an air of anticipation in the country’s largest city throughout the day, even after a fatal shooting nearby rocked the country and sparked a pregame moment of silence.

On the residential streets surrounding the national stadium, houses were festooned with flags of the 32 World Cup participants.

New Zealand and Norway share a moment of silence before the match

New Zealand and Norway share a moment of silence before the match

 

Together, the two opening matches of the 2023 World Cup in Auckland and Sydney were expected to draw more than 100,000 spectators. However, the record crowd of 42,137 at the former positively eclipsed the previous high attendance of just 12,700 set by the Football Ferns in a friendly against the United States earlier this year.

The home fans were fully involved in the result from start to finish. Previously they sang the national anthem. They did the wave. They roared every time the hosts made a tackle or earned a corner. The decibel level rose every time his team entered the defensive third of the Norwegian field. These fans were ready to explode.

They finally had their chance less than three minutes into the second half. Goalkeeper Victoria Esson started the game with a goal kick, a slippery second pass sent Jacqui Hand down the right wing, and Hand overcame her mark and sent a perfect pass in front of the goal to forward Hannah Wilkinson, who deflected the ball past Norway keeper Aurora Mikalsen and into the net.

New Zealand’s Hannah Wilkinson scores the only goal of the match

New Zealand's Hannah Wilkinson scores the only goal of the match

 

After that, the venue was going wild, and Indiah-Paige Riley almost used the momentum to double the lead with a shot from distance that Mikalsen fully extended barely flicked his fingertip over the crossbar.

Without the sure goal, the tension at the end of the second half was visceral. Norway spilled over on the pressure. Defender Tuva Hansen nearly equalized, her 20-yard shot hitting Esson but not the crossbar.

It only got more tense when New Zealand’s Ria Percival failed to convert a 90th-minute penalty awarded after video review.

New Zealand’s Ria Percival misses a penalty in the 90th minute

New Zealand's Ria Percival misses a penalty in the 90th minute

 

It didn’t matter in the end.

On what was already the biggest day in New Zealand football history, the home team held on to give the country its first World Cup victory, men’s or women’s.

It took more than a long time to arrive and everyone knew it; this was New Zealand’s 22nd World Cup match of all time.

The New Zealand men made their debut in the sport’s premier competition back in 1982, nine years before the inaugural event for the women. The Football Ferns competed in that Women’s World Cup and each of the last four without ever tasting victory.

The wait was worth it? For all those who witnessed what happened in the cold Eden Park on Thursday, in New Zealand’s first home game, it’s hard to argue that this was not the case.

Summary of New Zealand vs. Norway

Summary of New Zealand vs. Norway

 

Before this tournament, Ferns captain Ali Riley told FOX Sports that winning a World Cup game at home “would make it the best game of my career.”

“We’ve been fighting for this for so long!” – Ali Riley on victory

"We have been fighting for this for so long!" - Ali Riley on victory

 

That’s what this moment meant, and who knows what happens from here. History made, New Zealand’s journey in this World Cup has just begun.

Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at various FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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