Moments into the second half of the opening match of the 2023 World Cup, New Zealand forward Hannah Wilkinson streaked into the box at full speed, two Norway defenders on her back, and connected her right foot with a perfectly-placed pass from her teammate Jacqui Hand. Even before the ball hit the back of the net, the roar of the crowd overwhelmed Eden Park and, for a few moments, supplanted the memory of sirens from just 12 hours earlier.

The jubilation of the Football Ferns and the record 42,137 fans didn’t end there, with New Zealand’s first tournament win in its history. The emotional release on Thursday night was clear after a long and disconcerting morning in the city of Auckland/Tamaki Makaurau.

World Cup

Wilkinson (left) and New Zealand celebrate (Photo: SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Before dawn, New Zealand’s only worries about the opening match of the World Cup were related to the potential rain rolling in, or how the Ferns would be able to defend against world-class talents like Ada Hegerberg or Caroline Graham Hansen. By early morning, those worries seemed quaint, distant even, as information about the “major incident” trickled in, with multiple World Cup teams on lockdown in the immediate area, and concerns that the shooting was not an isolated incident.

It took hours before those fears could be dispelled, but the impact could not be dismissed so quickly.

By mid-morning, two were confirmed dead — as well as the shooter, named by police as Matu Tangi Matua Reid, 24 — with more injured. Both prime minister Chris Hipkins, who visited the Ferns’ dressing room after their 1-0 victory over Norway, and police commissioner Andrew Coster said the incident was unrelated to the tournament, was not considered a matter of national security, and the World Cup could proceed as planned.

“We put so much pressure on ourselves because it wasn’t just about winning a game,” New Zealand’s Ali Riley said afterward, long after the stadium had emptied itself of its ecstatic fans, the lights were off, and the rain finally began to fall. “This is about inspiring our entire country, and with what happened this morning, trying to do something positive today and honor the first responders.”

Riley, somber for a moment in a night of pride and vindication and pure, pure happiness, continued, “That’s a lot, and it felt like we did it. I think we did it.”

Riley is interviewed immediately after her side’s win (Photo: SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The shooting incident began shortly after 7 a.m. in Auckland, with police on the scene within moments, descending upon the far end of Queen Street in the city’s center. A helicopter was stationary over the building. Sirens sounded constantly through the morning, a distressing background symphony for the vague updates from the television news, which escalated from advice to stay indoors to the news that an active shooting was in progress.

“We don’t see this in New Zealand,” a reporter on the scene informed those watching from homes and hotels, aware of how many people were in downtown Auckland because of the World Cup.


Down the street, the USWNT stayed in their hotel. The team was waking up for the day ahead of training and other obligations, including a visit from Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. No players had left the hotel yet for the morning for coffee or to see family and friends, and the team’s security was able to ensure everyone was safe and accounted for as they liaised with local authorities and the U.S. State Department.

Because of their proximity to the incident, their departure for training was delayed, but that ended up being the only real impact on their day.

“Unfortunately, I feel like in the U.S., we’ve dealt with this far too many times,” forward Lynn Williams said later that afternoon, noting the team hadn’t had any formal conversation about what had transpired that morning. “There was definitely a sense of, let’s come together, we still have a job to do, but also recognizing that lives were lost. That is very real and very devastating.”


Megan Rapinoe listens to Doug Emhoff during training in Auckland on Thursday (Photo: Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Defender Crystal Dunn echoed that, saying that the team allowed each other space to process the emotions and the trauma, but the training sessions and team activities gave them a chance to “try to be connected again on a tough day.”

Later at Eden Park, Ferns defender Katie Bowen added: “Everyone was just pretty taken aback because this doesn’t really happen in New Zealand. Especially on a game day, (it was) down to each individual doing what they needed to do to process it and making sure that they could focus on the game at the same time.”

In the limbo between morning and the afternoon’s lead-in to the games, downtown Auckland felt like a strange pocket of surreality. While players were still in their hotels or at training sessions, World Cup visitors dawdled trying to gauge the city’s reaction. Above cordoned-off streets, ads for the tournament flashed over armed police staring into the middle distance at the intersection of Queen and Customs, surrounded still by police cars. The further from that pocket, the more normal it felt, even if it was still subdued.

The planned FIFA fan zone at The Cloud, a landmark on Auckland’s waterfront, was directly across from the site of the shooting, and remained behind those police cordons for most of the day. At one point, a young American girl nearby asked her father, “Why are they making such a big deal of this?”

There were so many reminders of what passes for normal at home in the United States and how absolutely remarkable it was here in New Zealand. In the United States, there have been 392 mass shootings this calendar year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Aotearoa New Zealand has had only two, including Thursday’s incident, in the last two decades. Here, they immediately tightened gun laws following the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. Eyewitnesses reported it was the first time they had ever heard gunfire.

The fan zone at The Cloud never opened on Thursday, with Ngati Whatua Orakei (the Maori hapu or sub-tribe of Auckland), and local officials choosing to cancel the day’s events “out of deep respect for those who lost their lives and those affected in downtown Auckland.”

Shortly ahead of the opening match, football’s world governing body FIFA issued a statement that said there were “no security concerns” ahead of the World Cup, citing the host nation’s minister for sport and recreation Grant Robertson. “There is a comprehensive security plan around our hosting of the FIFA Women’s World Cup,” he said, “and we will continue to work with the police who have been part of operational planning group for the tournament, and as such, have plans in place and were well placed to deal with this morning’s incident.”

If police presence outside the stadium was increased from normal, it was hard to tell. Cheery volunteers were everywhere, guiding fans and media alike, and the only police vehicles around the stadium close to kick-off seemed to be the ones escorting the VIP delegation into the stadium. The incident certainly did not deter spectators as a record-breaking crowd found their seats for the opening ceremony.

(Photo: Marty MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images)

By 6.30 p.m. at Eden Park, the threat of poor weather had not actually materialized, as one of the two host nations for the tournament showcased its culture and invitation to the rest of the world. This, at least, could be a chance to have the eyes of the world on Tamaki Makaurau for all the right reasons, rather than the wrong ones.

Opening ceremonies can be strange things that can often miss the mark, but Thursday night’s felt specific in a way these rarely do, and emotional too. This was the essence of Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand, before it shifted into the standard empty calorie fare of a lip-synced performance of the tournament’s official anthem.

There was no caginess, no chess match in the opening match, even if the nerves were clear early on.

Instead, mad, entertaining, baffling football happened from start to finish, with the home team pulling off the major upset and providing themselves an opportunity to advance out of the group stage.

It may not have been perfect football, but here inside Eden Park, as the crowd cheered every defensive interception, every touch in Norway’s third, as they exploded with boundless glee as the Ferns stormed the field at the final whistle to collapse into each other’s arms, it felt perfect anyway.

(Top photos: Georgia Soares; design: Eamonn Dalton)