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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Women’s World Cup begins with wins for New Zealand and Australia

The 32-team festival of soccer is more wide open than usual. And the two host nations started with victory, though Australia was without its injured top player, Sam Kerr.

By Andrew Das and Tariq Panja

Shaken by a mass shooting and set against record crowds, the Women’s World Cup opened Thursday with matches featuring co-hosts New Zealand and Australia that showcased the growth and promise of women’s soccer but also some of the sport’s persistent challenges.

New Zealand went first, beating Norway, 1-0, on a bitter cold night at Eden Park, home of the country’s famed All Blacks men’s rugby team, and in front of the biggest crowd ever to see a women’s soccer game in the country. Australia followed with a 1-0 victory over Ireland despite the untimely absence of its biggest star, Sam Kerr.

New Zealand fans roared with delight when Hannah Wilkinson scored the tournament’s opening goal by turning in a cross minutes into the second half. Her goal delivered New Zealand’s first-ever World Cup victory in its sixth visit to women’s soccer’s showcase event.

“We put so much pressure on ourselves because it wasn’t just about winning a game, it was about inspiring our entire country,” New Zealand captain Ali Riley said, adding, “I think we did it.”

Across the Tasman Sea, Australia then beat Ireland in front of more than 75,000 fans in Sydney. But it did so without Kerr, its star striker, who sustained a calf injury the night before the game. Kerr will miss at least two games, Australia’s team announced, becoming the latest elite player ruled out of a tournament already marred by knee injuries that have sideline almost a dozen other top players.

Without Kerr, whose face adorns tournament posters across the continent-sized country, Australia created few openings against a stubborn Irish team and required a penalty from defender Steph Catley, its stand-in captain in place of Kerr, to ensure that like New Zealand it would open the tournament with a victory.

Two years in the planning, the World Cup opened only 3 miles and 12 hours removed from the site of a mass shooting in an office building under construction near the city’s waterfront and down the block from Norway’s team hotel. Three people died, including the gunman, and five were injured. The opening game began with a moment of silence to honor the victims.

The tournament also began with testy pretournament talk about rainbow armbands, unequal prize money and lagging ticket sales, and a first glimpse of the talent spread across its expanded 32-team field.

That expansion, fueled by investments in dozens of countries and efforts by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, to grow the women’s game, has helped create perhaps the most wide-open tournament in its 32-year history. But it has also the prospect of competitive imbalance: Australia’s opponent, Ireland, was one of eight newcomers in the field, each of them soon to face a daunting challenge against an established power like the United States, the two-time reigning champion, and European teams like Sweden, Spain, France and Germany.

Contradictions like that were already among the World Cup’s storylines. Organizers have sold almost 1.4 million tickets, for example, but last week offered more than 20,000 others for free to fans in New Zealand, where sales have been disappointing. The teams were playing for a record pool of prize money — $110 million, more than triple the amount of four years ago — but dozens of players have complained that their federations have refused to offer them a fair share of the payouts.

Those disputes surely will continue as the tournament rolls out toward its final on Aug. 20 in Sydney. But on Thursday, at least, the focus was on the field, on the opportunities for new teams, on the rich rewards available to the players, and on a famous first for New Zealand, the star, for one night, of the biggest party in women’s soccer.

Organizers will surely hope that Kerr can get healthy enough to join the party, too. The forward is the one undisputed superstar in the Australian ranks, with a celebrity in her home country that in many ways eclipses the sport itself.

It was her name that was by far the one most commonly emblazoned on the backs of fans sporting the golden Australian jersey as they made their way to what was by far the highest attended women’s soccer game ever staged in Australia.

Kerr cut a forlorn figure in the moments before the game, walking out among the substitutes. Australian officials said Kerr would undergo an evaluation before the third and final group game. Kerr told her 1.2 million followers on Instagram that she wanted to share the news to avoid any distraction for her team. “I would have loved to have been out there tonight but I can’t wait to be a part of this amazing journey which starts now,” she wrote.

Without Kerr, and despite the narrow victory, that journey will almost certainly be a lot bumpier for the co-hosts.

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