Auckland's cheers turn to tears
© Foto-net

The first day of the first-ever FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup began with dark, foreboding clouds and the unwelcome promise of rain.

Almost until kick-off, there was a real concern that the vast uncovered areas of North Harbour Stadium could find themselves cruelly exposed to the worst of Auckland's temperamental spring weather. Another worry was that the threatened downpour would dampen the enthusiasm of a Kiwi sporting public who, according to the sceptics, are too infatuated with the oval ball to truly embrace the beautiful game in any case.

Far from it. Quite the opposite transpired, in fact, with these hardy New Zealanders providing 13,123 reasons why FIFA's newest competition is in the safest of hands. And the reward for this record crowd, setting an impressive new national benchmark for a women's event, was a terrific end-to-end match that was bereft of only one ingredient: a Kiwi goal.

That certainly would have been the least that Paul Temple's fearless side deserved for their exceptional efforts on a thrilling opening night broadcast live on national TV and around the world on FIFA.com TV. At just 26, Temple is one of the youngest coaches ever to lead a team into a FIFA tournament, but the first grey hairs must surely have been appearing by the end of a match that drained the emotions - and broke Kiwi hearts.

It was bitterly ironic that an evening which had kicked off with a show of national pride - Maori dancers performing the fearsome haka during an entertaining opening ceremony - should finish with the Young Football Ferns weeping openly on the pitch, wondering just how they had contrived to emerge empty-handed. Yet even in defeat, Temple's players found time to acknowledge the backing they had received.

"I've never experienced anything like it," reflected captain Bri Fisher. "As soon as we got the ball, the whole crowd was behind us. I'm just so excited for Saturday now. Hopefully we can get the same kind of crowd out and this time get the right result."

As Fisher and her coach were quick to acknowledge, not only was this a big crowd, it was an enthusiastic one, ready and willing to cheer each and every full-blooded tackle and unfolding attack. Even the elements played their part, with the clouds parting just as the players emerged from the tunnel to bathe the pitch in some unexpected evening sunshine.

The question now? Whether the sun has gone down on New Zealand's chances of making the quarter-finals. That elusive target, which has proved beyond every one of their Kiwi predecessors at FIFA tournaments, now seems more distant than ever. Not that Fisher has any intentions of giving up the dream.

"It's definitely not over for us in this tournament," the battling centre-half said, determination etched on her face. "If we play like we did today and just take our chances, we'll be a match for anyone. We can still do it."

Not mission impossible then, but still mission unlikely. Nevertheless, if Auckland can provide the same kind of inspiring backing it served up tonight, no-one should discount the Kiwis' chances of pulling it off.