Reporting from Eden Park in Auckland.
Ali Riley wears her heart on her sleeve. Speak with her for all of one minute, and that much is obvious.
Thursday was different, though, even for her. Thursday was a day 32 years in the making, dating back to her days as a baby. New Zealand won a Women’s World Cup game for the first time in 16 attempts. A 1-0 victory for the Football Ferns over Norway was made sweeter by its setting: a cheerful, record home crowd at Eden Park.
Moments after the fulltime whistle, the New Zealand captain covered her face as she sobbed in joy. She then placed her hand on her heart before waving to the crowd of 42,137 fans that mostly stuck around to give a standing ovation to their home team. Then, Riley bent over, hands covering her face again, to collect herself before an international TV interview.
“It’s the best night of my life,” Riley told reporters moments later. She praised her teammates and the fans. She took playful jabs at reporters for their prior doubts of the team. And she spoke from the heart about a moment almost too big even for her to capture.
“The result is very important and that’s what people remember,” she said, “but I think for people who showed up tonight, the 40,000-plus, to see the way that we fought, the resilience of this team, how gritty, the effort, the sprinting, everything: that is the kind of performance that we wanted to show. That’s who we are. That is how we can inspire young girls. That is how we can make our nation proud and hopefully change the sporting culture in this country.”
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