Football World Cup: Home tournament brings Football Ferns closer to Kiwi roots, claims striker Hannah Wilkinson

Football Ferns veteran Hannah Wilkinson has credited the Football World Cup on home soil for bringing the NZ players closer to their Kiwi roots.

The tournament, co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia, has come to a climax, with Spain defeating European champions England at Sydney's Stadium Australia for their maiden World Cup crown. 

The event has broken all kinds of records for attendance and viewership, with just under 2 million spectators at an average of 30,911 per game - 9000 more than four years ago in France.

Hannah Wilkinson celebrates her goal against Norway.
Hannah Wilkinson celebrates her goal against Norway. Photo credit: Getty Images

On this side of the Tasman, Auckland's Eden Park was sold out three times during the playoff rounds, setting a new record of 43,217 for football attendance - men or women - in New Zealand.

Close on the heels of last year's cricket and rugby World Cups, the spectacle will boost women's sport - and specifically football - in New Zealand, but Wilkinson hints it had a profound personal impact on the Ferns, who won their first game at this level, but fell short of the knockout stages.

"As a group, the Ferns are really, really connected," she said. "A lot of us have actually played together for over 10 years, so that's quite a long time.

"With the tournament being in Aotearoa NZ, we felt a very special connection to the land, especially that first game and across all games, with all the support we had."

While the Kiwi players ply their trades in professional leagues across the world, they have very rarely played as the national team at home, until this World Cup build-up began. 

Despite attending five previous tournaments - along with four Olympics - the Ferns were largely unrecognised at home and often visitors in their own land. That changed over the course of this World Cup.

"I felt New Zealand culture was really well represented for once," reflected Wilkinson, 31, who became a national hero, after scoring her team's only goal of the tournament to defeat Norway in the opening game.

"It's important that when other nations came to arrive, they were welcomed in a very special and traditional and unique way, steeped in NZ Aotearoa culture.

"It was an opportunity for us, as New Zealanders, to reconnect with our land as well and I really do hope people can be more educated about the history of Aotearoa."

One of those who probably appreciated that renewed link most was Ferns captain Ali Riley, who was born in Los Angeles and has never lived in New Zealand, playing in the United States, Sweden, England and Germany.

Ali Riley poses with Football Ferns fans.
Ali Riley poses with Football Ferns fans. Photo credit: Photosport

She qualified for the Football Ferns through her Kiwi dad.

"Ali Riley is one of the best humans I know, by miles," said Wilkinson. "A lot of our teammate would probably say the same.

"She's our captain, she is fiercely devoted to our country and to our team. She does a lot on the field, but she does even more off the field that a lot of people don't see.

"I have absolutely nothing but respect for her."

While the NZ players are currently going through their own debriefing process, coach Jitka Klimkova expects most to recommit towards next year's Paris Olympics.