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Women’s World Cup Daily: The mood in Australia, New Zealand

The 2023 Women’s World Cup begins Thursday and teams are getting ready to kick off the action.

These daily files will give you the latest reporting from around the 2023 World Cup as well as betting lines, what to watch for information and best reads. Check in with ESPN throughout the tournament as we bring you the latest from Australia and New Zealand.

Today’s edition: one more sleep until the opening game! What’s the mood like in the host nations? Here’s what you might have missed from Wednesday, and what you need to know about Thursday’s opening matches.


VIBE CHECK: First impressions from ESPN writers

Infantino’s PR-heavy assembly can’t dampen New Zealand’s World Cup spirit

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Speaking on the eve of the 2023 World Cup, FIFA president Gianni Infantino and secretary general, Fatma Samoura addressed some of the assembled media in Auckland. The president ruined all of our running jokes when he opened, “For those wanting to hear how I feel today…” before stating he was tired from the travel having only landed in New Zealand a couple of hours before.

The news conference was standard fare, yet every time he was asked a question, his answer consistently managed to be a positive one about investment from FIFA and the growth of the sport. Even when player welfare was brought up and the potential for a Club World Cup, the president opted to talk about the fiscal side of the game, with Samoura intoning about the importance of support from the home fans — saying so against the backdrop of poorly reported ticket sales across Aotearoa.

As well as dropping a nugget about not being able to ensure the bonus funds they’ve laid out of players will actually reach the individuals and not get clogged up and diverted elsewhere, the conference leaned on the PR side of things rather than delivering satisfactory answers to questions asked. We were reminded that ticket sales far surpassed those of 2019 without the caveat that an expanded tournament means 12 more games, and then there was the recap of how the prize pool has expanded over the past two tournament cycles.

A typical start to a FIFA tournament, then.

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Beyond that, after over 30 hours of travel, it’s glaringly clear that there are some big differences between landing in a 2023 host city and those in France in 2019. Other than a few posters around outside Reims train station, there was little in the way of fanfare four years ago. Auckland is a stark contrast, the branding all over the international arrivals part of the terminal building, with “BEYOND GREATNESS” popping out at you everywhere you look.

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‘Today I feel…’ – Infantino references Qatar speech at Women’s World Cup

FIFA president Gianni Infantino jokes about his speech from the Qatar World Cup ahead of the women’s tournament.

When you mention you’re in the Land of the Long White Cloud for the Women’s World Cup — in a rugby mad country — everyone knows you’re talking about football. But it reaches beyond Auckland, the first city of either host nation that will taste the first football of the competition, some 100km southeast of Hamilton (another Kiwi host city), you’ll find people excited for the start of the tournament, businesses whose staff have all bought personalised Ferns’ kits to wear at work on the days New Zealand will be playing.

Even though the ticket sales in New Zealand aren’t as strong as they are over the Tasman Sea in Australia, there is the clear feeling that this is not just a tournament happening in New Zealand but happening with New Zealand. — Sophie Lawson

“The best soccer weather” for the USWNT

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Touching down in a part of the world I never imagined I’d visit, I couldn’t help but feel I was in a familiar place.

The air was cool and misty, on the brink of rain. Off in the distance there were tree-covered landscapes at different elevations and, on one side, a vista of the coast. The brick buildings with glazed terra-cotta populated the downtown, housing hip coffee shops and restaurants.

It hit me: It was like I was in Portland, Oregon, a city where I’ve covered soccer for years and that is roughly 7,000 miles away. U.S. women’s national team forward Sophia Smith, who plies her trade on the Portland Thorns, apparently has made the same connection.

“I love this weather — it reminds me a lot of Portland,” she said Wednesday. “It’s cool. I think it’s the best soccer weather, personally.”

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While in 2019, the small city of Reims, France, was positively overrun with American fans for the Women’s World Cup, it hasn’t felt that way in Auckland — at least not yet.

The city has put the World Cup on display, with impossible-to-miss signage greeting travelers at the airport and signs dotting the lampposts along Queen Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. Taxi drivers are aware of the tournament and are ready for it. But Auckland — the largest city in New Zealand, with a population of 1.7 million — is no Reims, with a population of less than 200,000.

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Smith ready to prove herself on a ‘global stage’ at the World Cup

USWNT’s Sophia Smith looks ahead to the Women’s World Cup and speaks about her connection with Trinity Rodman.

FIFA has confirmed that American fans are again the largest traveling contingent of fans for this tournament, as usual. The Americans are here, and we’ll probably be hearing from them soon at Eden Park when the USWNT faces Vietnam on July 21. But for now Auckland is playing it cool, like a hipster city should. — Caitlin Murray

Bronze, England frustrated by bonus impasse

BRISBANE, Australia — At roughly the same time Gianni Infantino was talking in Auckland about FIFA’s payment structure, England star Lucy Bronze faced the press in Brisbane at the team’s hotel, and there was only one topic in town: the deadlock in the talks between the FA and the Lionesses over bonus and commercial structures.

There wasn’t a single question about their first opponent, Haiti, on Saturday; instead, the build-up to the World Cup has been dominated by off-field issues. The statement posted on Tuesday by the 23 Lionesses here in Australia was an attempt to draw a line under the matter, saying they are disappointed no resolution has been found, but equally, they must focus on winning the World Cup.

Bronze is a senior member of the England team, about to embark on her third World Cup, and she knows the power of their collective voice. “It’s about pushing every single angle that we can to make sure that women’s football can, you know, smash through that ceiling that we’re constantly getting put under,” Bronze said. And as Bronze added, it’s a byproduct of these moments that they have to use this spotlight to push change. “It’s unfortunate that it has come before the World Cup, but at the same time, it’s because the World Cup gives us the big stage. It’s when people want to listen to us, it’s when things really matter.”

The Lionesses care deeply about their individual and collective legacy. They’ve already achieved so much on and off the field. Last summer they won the Euros and subsequently lobbied the government to commit to providing equal access to all sports for boys and girls in England. There’s a collective will to ensure the sport is left in a better place for the next generation. But as Bronze knows, to do that, they must achieve on-field success at this World Cup.

The news agenda will shift in time and the focus will be more drawn to on-field matters — the opener is on Saturday and they should have a fully fit squad, with captain Millie Bright back in action. But it’s already shaping up to a be a World Cup of evolution and on- and off-field accountability. — Tom Hamilton

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ESPN FC’s top five players heading into the FIFA Women’s World Cup

Alexis Nunes breaks down the top five players to look out for at FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The “FOMO” is real in Melbourne

MELBOURNE, Australia — After the 50,629 fans who packed into Marvel Stadium to watch the Matildas’ 1-0 win over France set a new record and World Cup excitement started to spread across the nation, there has been a seeping sense of moroseness in Melbourne, a city that styles itself as the sporting capital of the world, that ground availability issues mean it will host only six games during the WWC, none of which take place beyond the round of 16.

Tournament organisers determined very early on that the exclusivity FIFA demands of its venues made pursuing Marvel Stadium and the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground unfeasible given that it would require significant compensation for the disruption it would cause to other major events. The Australian Football League (AFL) — who themselves weren’t too keen on the idea of vacating a venue they own in Marvel, nor one that represents their crown jewel in the MCG — meant that the smaller Melbourne Rectangular Stadium got the World Cup nod. And now that the tournament is here, the FOMO is real.

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Additionally, the announcement on Tuesday morning by the Victorian State government that it was abandoning hosting the 2026 Commonwealth Games across the state has quickly moved to dominate the news cycle across the city. Debates have broken out about the merits of the decision, how it was handled and even the place of the Commonwealth Games (with its historical ties to the British Empire and colonialism) in modern society. In other words, conversations that aren’t about the WWC.

Nonetheless, despite the distractions, the vibe in Melbourne is still generally upbeat amongst WWC fans — matched by the Canadian goalkeeping crew, who interspersed their warm-up at training Wednesday with moves busted to the likes of Madonna and S-Club 7. — Joey Lynch

Destiny for the Matildas is just around the corner

SYDNEY, Australia — It’s been 1,118 days since FIFA president Infantino uttered the misleading sentence confirming Australia and New Zealand as the World Cup hosts.

At times, the journey to this point felt like a slog, for fans off the field and for the players on it. But soon Australia will wake up to a sunny winter’s morning, grab their coffees, don their scarves and make their way down to Stadium Australia to watch the Matildas play a World Cup opener at home. Pubs and lounge rooms across the country will be packed, filled with giddy nervousness.

The Matildas will walk out under the floodlights, face their adoring nation and play a game of football that will capture the attention of the nation in a way not felt since the Socceroos’ return to the World Cup stage in 2006. A determined debutant in Ireland, 75,000 fans and a date with destiny await these Matildas. — Marissa Lordanic


MATCH PREVIEWS

Group A: New Zealand vs. Norway – (Eden Park, Auckland; 7 p.m. local / 3 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. BST)

Odds: New Zealand +950, Draw +420, Norway -380

In five previous World Cups, New Zealand have never won a game: It’s an easy stat to remember, and it’s one the players surely can’t forget as embark as tournament co-hosts. Once again, they will have three chances to claim that illusive W, yet with all eyes on Auckland for the first game of this summer’s (winter’s) tournament, Norway are set to be the Ferns’ sternest test.

Norway themselves will be looking at progression from the group and finally turning a corner after a decade of disappointment and mediocrity, despite boasting some of the finest players in the world. There is no reason the Football Girls should have any trouble picking up three wins even if their primary tactic is to get the ball to generational talents Caroline Graham Hansen and Ada Hegerberg.

Playing their first tournament under Hege Riise, the world-class attacker who came before Hegerberg and Graham Hansen, the first match is likely to set the tone and give an indication to whether or not this team has finally, finally metamorphosed into a group that knows what they’re doing.

The focus will be on Norway’s attack but the vibe will be about the sold-out stadium and just how far home support could lift the Ferns. — Sophie Lawson

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Kerr admits Australia are ‘really confident’ about World Cup hopes

Sam Kerr looks ahead to Australia’s opening game against Ireland at the Women’s World Cup.

Group B: Australia vs. Republic of Ireland – (Sydney Football Stadium; 8 p.m. local / 6 a.m. ET / 11 a.m. BST)

Odds: Australia -380, Draw +400, Rep. of Ireland +1100

Every media opportunity the Matildas have done so far this week has revolved around the same question asked: How’s the fitness of the squad? With utility player Tameka Yallop limping off during a friendly against France and forward Kyah Simon still recovering from her ACL injury, with an eye to being utilised later in the tournament, the duo had trained away from the main group for the past three days.

Each time a player was asked, the same kind of response was offered. Mentions of the individual plan of these players got wheeled out. Midfielder Clare Wheeler began her answer by saying she’s not a doctor. At the official prematch news conference, Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson blanked questions about the fitness of the squad before finally answering that he would keep his cards close to his chest regarding the starting XI and the health of his squad. With the 24-hour deadline for squad changes now gone, it turns out there really was no update.

The team that took to the park against France is likely to start again with a potential switch in centre-back — Clare Polkinghorne coming in for Alanna Kennedy — an option. However, whether Polkinghorne or Kennedy starts should have no effect on how the Aussies approach this match, nor their favouritism against Ireland in their debut World Cup match. — Marissa Lordanic

Group B: Nigeria vs. Canada – (Melbourne Rectangular; 12:30 p.m. local / 10:30 p.m. ET [Thursday] / 3:30 a.m. BST)

Odds: Nigeria +850, Draw +400, Canada -340

Both Nigeria and Canada will enter the WWC in peculiar positions, both units possessing the talent to go deep into the tournament but also facing significant off-field distractions.

Nigeria has consistently been the strongest women’s side from Africa and will call upon stars such as Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala in Australia, yet they’ve also been in significant conflict with their federation. Coach Randy Waldrum last month accused the Nigerian Football Federation of interference and being significantly behind on wages on the “Sounding off on Soccer” podcast, while the team’s players have reportedly gone so far as to threaten to boycott their opening game should the NFF not pay them previously agreed match bonuses.

Meanwhile, led by the iconic Christine Sinclair, Canada are the reigning Olympic champions, possess one of the most defensively sound units at the tournament and shape as genuine contenders. However, they have also been in a long-standing dispute with Canada Soccer over working conditions and remuneration, with a deal still yet to be struck.

With Australia and the Republic of Ireland also drawn within it, Group B has come to be seen as a Group of Death™ at the WWC, which gives Friday’s game extra impetus: You might not be able to secure progression with a win, but a loss would represent an absolute hammer blow to those chances. — Joey Lynch


TOP FEATURES OF THE DAY

2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup team-by-team preview
ESPN previews each of the World Cup’s 32 teams in the tournament with everything you need to know about the sides, split into the groups they will be in.

Ranking every team’s kits at the 2023 Women’s World Cup
England fans aren’t the only ones who will be dancing to ’90s classic “Freed From Desire” when their national team scores a goal at the World Cup.

Best players at 2023 Women’s World Cup: Morgan, Marta, more
Instead of all the best players in the world hailing from a few top teams, the sport is more competitive than it has ever been, and that’s apparent in the 2023 edition of ESPN FC’s World Cup Rank.


YOUR BEST BETS (odds via Caesars Sportsbook)

The United States has won the last two women’s World Cups and is the betting favorite to win an unprecedented third in a row this year. But the gap between the U.S. women and the competition has narrowed, and the odds reflect a more competitive field than in the most recent World Cups.

Caesars Sportsbook has the U.S. at +225 to win the Cup, followed by England (+450), Spain (+500) and Germany (+750). France is +1,000, with Australia next at +1,200. Sweden is +2,000 and the Netherlands are +2,200. The U.S. was an even-money favorite to win the 2019 World Cup.

The U.S., which has won four World Cups overall, is unsurprisingly attracting overwhelming support from bettors at American sportsbooks. FanDuel reported Tuesday that the U.S. had attracted 82% of the money wagered on its odds to win the Cup. England is second, with only 5% of the overall money wagered.

U.S. striker Alex Morgan is the favorite to win the Golden Boot award, given to the player with the most goals in the tournament. Morgan is +550, followed by teammate Sophia Smith at +800. — David Purdum


NEWS OF THE DAY

  • FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on the eve of the Women’s World Cup that although FIFA has for the first time started earmarking prize money payments to be paid to players, FIFA will still distribute money to federations rather than oversee direct payments to players. The world governing body of soccer announced in June that every player competing in the tournament would be paid at least $30,000 by FIFA, and “we are guaranteeing prize money for players.” But Infantino said Wednesday ensuring such payments go directly to players isn’t feasible. Rather, prize money will still be paid to federations, but now FIFA is asking a portion of that money to go to players. Read

  • United States women’s national soccer team forward Sophia Smith said that everything she and defender Naomi Girma will do at this World Cup will be in memory of former Stanford teammate Katie Meyer. Meyer, who along with Smith and Girma was part of Stanford University’s national-championship-winning soccer team in 2019, died by suicide in March 2022. Meyer’s parents, Steve and Gina, are attempting to get colleges to adopt a policy called “Katie’s Save” in which students can opt for a trusted adult “designated advocate” to receive notice and provide support when they need it the most. Read

  • Cathy Freeman has surprised the Matildas in camp to give some key advice on how to handle the pressure in their own bid to make history at the Women’s World Cup. Many players, including captain Sam Kerr and Indigenous stars Kyah Simon and Lydia Williams, have cited Australian athletics legend Freeman’s incredible gold medal 400m run at the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a defining moment of their childhoods. Last Wednesday, while preparing to play France in Melbourne, players entered what they thought was a tactics meeting with coach Tony Gustavsson — only to be stunned when Freeman appeared in the room. Read


WHAT TO WATCH

Group A: New Zealand vs. Norway – (Eden Park, Auckland; 7 p.m. local / 3 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. BST)

Group B: Australia vs. Republic of Ireland – (Sydney Football Stadium; 8 p.m. local / 6 a.m. ET / 11 a.m. BST)

Group B: Nigeria vs. Canada – (Melbourne Rectangular; 12:30 p.m. local / 10:30 p.m. ET [Thursday] / 3:30 a.m. BST)


WHAT ELSE CAUGHT OUR EYE

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Explained: How VAR will work at the Women’s World Cup

Dale Johnson explains the process that will see referees announce why they have overturned a decision in the stadium.

VAR at the Women’s World Cup may look and feel very different as FIFA trials a new method of keeping the fans informed about decisions. Here’s how it will work.

Until this year, fans had to rely on messages put on the big screen in the stadium, or the commentator on television working out what the referee had decided.

FIFA has embarked on a yearlong trial of referees announcing the outcome when the VAR has sent them to the monitor.

After watching the replay, the referee will make the TV sign and then say how play will restart, and any possible sanctions such as a red card. This will be heard by the fans in the stadium and those watching on TV.

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