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The scenes at the end of both games on the opening day of the 2023 Women’s World Cup told the story.

For Australia a few hours later, it felt more like getting the job done as they beat Republic of Ireland through a Steph Catley penalty, the Arsenal player taking the captain’s armband after Sam Kerr was dramatically ruled out shortly before kick-off with a calf injury.

Two 1-0 victories, two different perspectives – with the New Zealand perspective one of “tears” and “goosebumps”.

“Seeing them have tears in their eyes and enjoying it in front of their family and friends at the end, I will never forget these moments,” New Zealand boss Jitka Klimkova said after Hannah Wilkinson’s winner against Norway.

Even Prime Minister Chris Hipkins joined in the New Zealand celebrations, hours after he addressed the nation following the deadly shooting in Auckland that had cast a shadow over what was supposed to be a day of celebration.

“He came to the locker room and was very proud for this team,” added Klimkova, the Czech coach who was appointed in August 2021 and spent the first few months of her reign unable to step foot in New Zealand due to Covid restrictions.

The Football Ferns had waited a long time for Thursday’s big moment.

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They had failed to win a game at their previous five World Cup appearances and few outside New Zealand gave them much hope against Norway.

If they defeat World Cup debutants the Philippines on Tuesday then New Zealand can start planning for the knockout rounds for the first time.

In front of a passionate crowd of 42,137 – a record crowd for a football match in New Zealand – they produced a memorable performance that will live long in the memories of those present.

New Zealand Finance Minister Grant Robertson and former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern congratulate a tearful looking C.J. Bott of New Zealand
Finance minister Grant Robertson and former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern congratulate a tearful looking CJ Bott after New Zealand’s win over Norway

“I still have goosebumps and emotions,” Klimkova said an hour after the final whistle.

“We have waited for this moment for such a long time. Hearing our fans getting behind us like that, it’s an unforgettable moment for me. It’s an incredible feeling.”

Excitement had been building across Auckland as the city prepared to kick off the Women’s World Cup, the culmination of years of effort to bring the largest ever standalone women’s sporting event to its shores.

The Football Ferns have been hard to ignore as they stared down from giant billboards, while some of the players’ faces were projected onto the city’s Sky Tower – a 328-metre tall tourist attraction – on the eve of the tournament.

Wilkinson, whose goal earned her country a famous win, spent the last few minutes of the match with her head in her hands, sitting on the bench as Norway threatened a late equaliser.

New Zealand boss Jitka Klimkova appears to wipe away tears after her side's World Cup victory over Norway
New Zealand boss Jitka Klimkova appears to wipe away tears after her side’s World Cup victory over Norway

The hosts had to endure 10 minutes of stoppage time before they were able to celebrate.

“There were a lot of doubters because of the [recent] results we had, but we believed – we believed in ourselves this entire game,” said veteran defender Ali Riley, who is playing at her fifth World Cup.

“This is what dreams are made of.”

‘Heartbroken to lose Kerr’

There was plenty of emotion at Stadium Australia too as the co-hosts also got off to a winning start, thanks to Catley’s coolly taken spot-kick seven minutes after half-time.

This was more like a pressure valve being released. Catley steamed away to the sidelines in celebration, her nine outfield team-mates trailing after her like a yellow comet tail.

However, Australia could never quite shake off the threat of a disciplined Republic side, and the pressure valve was back on by the time keeper Mackenzie Arnold had to make a low sprawling save from Irish captain Katie McCabe in the sixth minute of stoppage time.

Nevertheless, three points are the same no matter the fashion of the win. At Euro 2022, England started with a scrappy 1-0 victory over Austria before going all the way to a historic triumph as hosts. Australia will now look to do the same.

Australia fans celebrate in fan park in Melbourne
Supporters descended on fan parks like this one in Melbourne to watch the opening game

How much of the on-field mission Australia will have to negotiate without captain, all-time top scorer and talisman Kerr remains to be seen.

The 29-year-old – winner of three successive domestic doubles with Chelsea and twice on the Ballon d’Or podium – was a shock absence from the team as it emerged she had suffered a calf injury in training on Wednesday.

Kerr will also miss Australia’s second game of the World Cup against Nigeria on 27 July, and Catley indicated the Matildas are preparing to be without their focal point for even longer.

“We were losing the best player in the world, and for her as a person we were heartbroken,” Catley said. “We had to gather ourselves quickly, and use her spirit – that’s what it will take for however long she misses.

“She is our spiritual leader, her role will be massive, whatever it will be.”

Sam Kerr and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hug after Australia's opening Women's World Cup win
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined in the Australia celebrations with Sam Kerr and her team-mates after the match

The big screen at Stadium Australia cut to Kerr barely a minute into the match, and went back to her several times during the game as she looked at various stages of pensiveness.

Australia must be less reserved for the remainder of their World Cup if they are to reach their goals – while for New Zealand, the expression of joy following an uplifting win could be the beginning of something special.

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