Countdown to the FIFA Women's Football World Cup: What you need to know

1:34 pm on 17 July 2023
Ali Riley and Sam Kerr ahead of 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup

Photo: RNZ

Explainer - The Football Ferns are hoping for better and to shake off indifferent form when the country hosts its biggest sporting event ever in a few days. So who are the stars and how will it all unfold? RNZ takes a look at what we can expect.

As the event plays out, expect New Zealand's Football Ferns such as CJ Bott, Ali Riley and Micky Foster to leap into prominence - just as the Black Ferns did on their way to a memorable world cup title last year.

No-one is suggesting the footballers can emulate them - but they will take heart from playing on home soil. A win in the group stage or even better, advancing to the knock-out stage, would be an unprecedented achievement for a Kiwi football side at the top level.

New Zealand is co-hosting with Australia and for the first time 32 nations will take part, a major expansion on the 12 who competed in the first women's World Cup in China in 1991.

The Football Ferns will feature in the tournament opener on 20 July when they take on 12th-ranked Norway at Eden Park at 7pm. Later that night Australia will play Ireland in Sydney where the final will also be played exactly one month later.

Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, and Dunedin will host 29 matches of the 64 that will be played during the event. Most are group matches with Auckland and Wellington also set to host one round-of-16 match each, both on Saturday 5 August, then a quarterfinal each on Friday 11 August followed by a semifinal in Auckland on Tuesday 15 August.

FIFA is promising a $200 million boost for the country's economy and a chance to grow the women's game to complement some of the best football action in the world this year although research suggests the long-term benefits of mega-events, like World Cups and Olympics, are open to debate.

The Hotel Council has already expressed its disappointment that a promised flood of bookings from international visitors had not eventuated by the first week of July.

There will be eight groups of four teams with the same format as the recent men's event in Qatar - the top two qualifiers from the group stage advance to the knock-out stage.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 26: Ali Riley #5 of Angel City FC and Lynn Williams #10 of NJ/NY Gotham FC fight for control of the ball during the first half of a game at BMO Stadium on March 26, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.   Katharine Lotze/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Katharine Lotze / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Captain Ali Riley, seen here playing for her Angel City side in the US, will lead from the front for the Ferns when she takes part in her fifth World Cup campaign. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

The teams to play their first three matches in Aotearoa are:

  • Group A: Norway, Philippines, Switzerland, and NZ
  • Group C: Spain, Costa Rica, Zambia and Japan
  • Group E: the United States, Vietnam, the Netherlands and Portugal
  • Group G: Sweden, South Africa, Italy and Argentina

New Zealand has hosted FIFA tournaments on three other occasions, namely the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in 2008, FIFA U-17 World Cup (1999) and the FIFA U-20 World Cup (2015).

Any controversies?

Yes - officials in both Australia and New Zealand were alarmed at reports FIFA would allow Saudi Arabia's tourist arm to be a cup sponsor.

The co-hosts objected on the grounds of Saudi Arabia's treatment of women and saw it as an attempt at 'sportwashing'. In March FIFA dropped the plan.

Who are the favourites?

77th July 2019,  Groupama Stadium, Lyon, France; FIFA Womens World Cup final, USA versus Netherlands; Team USA celebrate their final win on the podium

The USA celebrate their win at the World Cup, in Lyon, France on 7 July 2019. Photo: AFP

Defending champions the USA who have won the World Cup four times, including in 2015 and 2019, are the front-runners. They have never finished worse than third.

Sweden, who like the USA will be based in New Zealand for the group stage, are the number three side in the world (in FIFA's June rankings). They have been the beaten finalists once and finished third three times, including in 2019.

Fifth-ranked France made the EURO semis in 2022 and bring some good form but have never finished top three at a World Cup while Olympic champions Canada (7th ranked) have been disrupted by a pay dispute that left the players "drained", according to their coach.

Fourth-ranked England are another formidable side. They won the the UEFA Women's Euros last year on home soil and with a squad packed with talent, plus an astute coach in Dutchwoman Sarina Wiegman, they ooze confidence as they aim for their first ever World Cup trophy.

Who are the stars we will see in NZ?

US President Joe Biden presents US soccer player Megan Rapinoe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, during a ceremony honoring 17 recipients, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, July 7, 2022. - The Suit of US soccer player Megan Rapinoe is embroidered with the initials 'BG', for WNBA player Brittney Griner, who is held in Russia (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Megan Rapinoe receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Joe Biden. Photo: AFP

The world's most prominent woman player is the USA's Megan Rapinoe who has led the fight for her side to be paid the same as male players. She was called a hero by a US Senator after Congress passed legislation to ensure equal pay for all US sportswomen competing in international events. Rapinoe has also been outspoken on LGBTQ+ and racial issues and has been awarded the US's highest honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has announced she will retire later this year.

Her teammate Alex Morgan is almost as prominent. At the last World Cup she scored five goals in one match (against Thailand), she has written children's books on sport and teamwork, and also fought alongside Rapinoe during their legal battle with the US Soccer Federation for equal pay. She will bring her three-year-old daughter Down Under and told AP it was exciting to represent "mom athletes".

German striker Alex Popp is another outstanding force - the captain scored in every match at the 2022 EUROs until the final which she missed due to injury. She was named as her country's football personality of the year last year.

Spanish midfielder Alexia Putella, (known as Alexia) is the Barcelona captain, has won the Ballon d'Or twice and is also a campaigner trying to advance women's rights in the sport.

24 June 2023, Hesse, Offenbach: Soccer, women: Internationals, Germany - Vietnam, Stadion Bieberer Berg. Germany's Alexandra Popp. Photo: Sebastian Christoph Gollnow/dpa (Photo by Sebastian Christoph Gollnow / DPA / dpa Picture-Alliance via AFP)

Germany's captain and her country's football personality of the year Alex Popp. Photo: AFP / DPA

Who are the Kiwi stars?

Right-back CJ Bott plays for Leicester City in England's Women's Super League. She's in no doubt how much it means to play in a home World Cup. "No matter what team I ever play for that's going to be the biggest moment of my career," she told Sky Sport. "I could win the Champions League final and it still wouldn't compare for me to playing at home in front of a sold-out crowd."

Striker Hannah Wilkinson is the squad's go-to guitarist and sing-along-leader and a talented artist. She painted the mural at Eden Park that honours three women's World Cups in NZ in two years (cricket, rugby and football).

Look out for 17-year-old Milly Clegg also. The 'baby' of the squad is set for her third World Cup this year after also playing in the Under-17 and Under-20 events.

Milly Clegg during the New Zealand Football Ferns FIFA WWC team announcement with her family and a former Football Fern.

Milly Clegg during the New Zealand Football Ferns FIFA WWC team announcement with her family and a former Football Fern. Photo: Lynne Cameron/

Football Ferns' form

Football Ferns coach Jitka Klimková

Jitka Klimková. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Football Ferns have featured in five previous FIFA Women's World Cups, however, like their male equivalents they have never made it to a knock-out round or registered a win so it is a major ambition for this side to achieve both.

Their recent record is not encouraging: Since Jitka Klimková was appointed national coach in 2021 New Zealand has played 24 games and won just four.

So the pressure is on at both ends of the park - score some goals and don't concede so many.

Klimková was encouraged by the improvements she saw during a two-month camp leading up to the World Cup when she also whittled her squad down from 40 to 23. As for playing at home: "The fans will be our 12th player and that's so important to our team. We will grab this opportunity."

Ticket sales

By 10 July more than one million tickets had been sold in both countries - 220,000 tickets have been sold in New Zealand compared to more than 900,000 in Australia. Dame Therese Walsh who organised the 2015 Cricket World is urging Kiwis to support the event in far greater numbers.

"With millions of eyeballs on us no one wants to see empty seats. It's not great for the host country's reputation as a bucket list tourist destination or as a host for future events on this scale," she wrote in Stuff.

FIFA still maintains it will be the most attended stand-alone women's sporting event ever, although chief women's football officer Sarai Bareman told the New Zealand Herald sales in this country were being hampered by the Ferns relatively modest "selling power".

In contrast Australia's Matildas, captained by superstar Sam Kerr, were "the darlings of the country", she said.

For the full schedule and ticket sales click here.

Where else can matches be watched?

There will be fan festival venues in each of the cities where games will be played. Entry is free, and as well as watching the games on big screens, fans can enjoy other entertainment such as music and cultural displays.

The venues are:

    Match schedule for 2023 Women's Football World Cup

    Photo: Supplied / FIFA