Ali Riley admits she cries all the time. TV, read a book, hear an inspirational story; All of these can cause tears to flow.
But she promises she won’t – can not – weep as the national anthems play ahead of Thursday’s opening game of the Women’s World Cup. As captain of New Zealand, which welcomes the world to its shores for one of the greatest sporting events of all time, she must maintain a tighter upper lip.
Yes, good luck with that.
“I will cry instantly just thinking about this moment,” she said. “There’s the sights and the sounds and the smells and everything. But I can’t, I can’t, I won’t cry. I will focus so much on the team and just take it all in.”
In that case, the tears would be understandable. The game against Norway marks the start of Riley’s fifth and likely final World Cup, which New Zealand is co-hosting with Australia. With two host countries, 32 teams and 64 matches, the month-long tournament will be the biggest Women’s World Cup in history. The $150 million purse is also the largest for a Women’s World Cup.
However, how many people are cared for in their adopted country is another question. On the eve of the opening kick-off, the energy in the country’s largest city is low. Rainbow World Cup banners fly from flagpoles lining Queen Street, Auckland’s main shopping street, but there is no tournament presence a block away on either side.
With the city surrounded by drizzly weather, few people walk around in football shirts — at least those that are visible under their winter coats — and a subway bus destination sign flashed “GO ALL BLACKS!!!” a prompt the New Zealanders popular rugby team who play Australia later this month.
According to FIFA, ticket sales for the World Cup surpassed 1 million last month, putting the tournament on track to break the attendance record for a standalone women’s sporting event. But only a quarter of those tickets were for the 29 games to be played in New Zealand, even though two-time reigning champions USA will play all three of their group games here. Last week, FIFA gave 20,000 tickets to four games in New Zealand free of charge to anyone who wanted to sit in the stands.
Riley, who grew up in Southern California, graduated from Studio City Harvard-Westlake and Stanford, and then spent her entire international career playing for her father’s home country, New Zealand, will be right in the thick of it.
“Everything all around feels like a culmination of so many important milestones in my life and career,” she said. “I get very emotional just thinking about it.”
Riley’s journey up to this point has been anything but smooth. Growing up in Pacific Palisades, she remembers competing in the 1999 Women’s World Cup at the Rose Bowl and dreamed of one day competing in that tournament. After leaving Stanford, where she studied psychology but considered pursuing a medical degree, she made plans to return to Southern California to play alongside Marta in the LA Sol.
But the team failed and the league soon followed; It would be another 13 years before she would play a professional club game in her hometown.
Meanwhile, she spent six years in Sweden – long enough to get Swedish citizenship – playing in Germany and England before signing with Orlando Pride NWSL in 2020, only to have the pandemic paralyze the league six weeks later. Two years later, Angel City FC, a first-year franchise, sent ration funds and a draft pick to Orlando for the rights to Riley, who became the team’s first captain.
The one constant in all of this has been Riley’s performances with New Zealand. Only one woman, Ria Percival, has played more games for the Football Ferns than Riley’s 152 and only Abby Erceg has worn the armband more. Riley, one of the most experienced full-backs in international football, could pass both this year.
She’s well aware of the numbers, but that’s not why she plays. Her work with the Global Players Union players council opened her eyes to using football for social change. Though her approach was far more subtle than the outright activism of Megan Rapinoe and others, she’s no less passionate.
Coverage of the 2023 Women’s World Cup
“Having a father from New Zealand gave me so many opportunities. That’s what I wish for everyone,” said Riley, whose default expression, a big smile, can become expressive and excited as the conversation takes a more serious turn. “And by that I don’t mean that everyone has the opportunity to play for the national team, just to play football or play sports or do whatever they want. That’s why it’s so important to me that young children of all backgrounds, no matter the color of their skin, no matter who they love, no matter who their parents are, have the opportunity to do whatever they want in life.
“I had a head start because I had a father who gave me a New Zealand passport. Football has given me so much and I just want it to be a safe space where women and girls feel they belong.”
However, what Riley has never managed to do is win a World Cup game. New Zealand have competed in every tournament since Riley joined the team as a teenager in 2007, but their best results were a draw against Mexico in 2011 and ties against Canada and China four years later. In their World Cup history, the Kiwis are 0-12-3 and have been outscored 34-8. (The men’s team did no better, going 0-3-3 in their two World Championships.)
New Zealand, who have won just one of their last 12 games, will open the group stage with No.12 Norway and end against 20th-placed Switzerland. But in between, in the New Zealand capital of Wellington, comes the humble Philippines, a World Cup debutant.
“It would be so incredible and it would be so meaningful,” Riley said of the first win. “We worked so hard to get this win. New Zealand had a very crazy, beautiful and painful journey at the World Cup.”
At 35, Riley is much closer to the end of her career than to the beginning, although it’s still uncertain when and where she will stop. Early next year, New Zealand is set to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics and his contract with Angel City runs until 2025. If the US and Mexico win the rights to host the 2027 World Cup, Riley could stay here and have a shot at it participate tournament.
But if that turns out to be the end of the road internationally, Riley says she can’t think of a better way to perform: playing in front of a home crowd — as it is — in her adopted homeland, at the biggest, most lucrative and most lucrative stadium, according to The Forecasts According to FIFA TV viewership, it is the most-watched Women’s World Cup.
“It’s really something special. So I see it more as an opportunity,” she said. “How can we make something big? How can we make a lasting impression and leave a legacy? And for me, that goes beyond football.
“So for New Zealand, which is a small country that’s pretty far from anything else, all young people can really dream big at these games. And it doesn’t have to be that they dream of becoming a soccer player. Just plant the seed so you can do anything you set your mind to.”
This might be something worth crying about.