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Home joy as New Zealand, Australia open World Cup with narrow wins

New Zealand beat Norway 1-0 for a first Women’s World Cup win ever and Australia battled past Ireland by the same scoreline on a triumphant opening day for the co-hosts on Thursday.

Both games played out to bumper crowds — the more than 42,000 who witnessed a piece of history at Auckland’s Eden Park was a New Zealand football record crowd, men’s or women’s, while over 75,000 packed Stadium Australia in Sydney.

It was a fitting start to the biggest Women’s World Cup yet — 32 teams will do battle over the next month, up from 24 in France four years ago, and global interest in women’s football is at an all-time high.

It was also a joyous end to a day which started with tragedy when Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, was shaken by a shooting which left two people and the gunman dead.

The shooting unfolded close to where several teams, including Norway, were staying. A moment of silence was held before kick-off of both matches to remember the victims.

Hannah Wilkinson was the Football Ferns’ hero, scoring three minutes after half-time to give them a precious victory over Norway, who are former winners of the competition.

It was New Zealand’s first win at the World Cup at the 16th attempt.

“We waited for this moment for such a long time. Hearing our fans behind us was just an unforgettable moment, for me as a coach and for all the players involved,” their coach Jitka Klimkova said.

The margin of victory on a cold, wet and windy evening would even have been greater had Ria Percival not missed a late penalty.

Qualifying for the knockout stages for the first time is now a realistic aim for New Zealand, with Switzerland and minnows the Philippines their other opponents in Group A.

– Kerr injury setback –

New Zealand’s tears of joy came just as co-hosts Australia suffered a huge setback with the news that skipper Sam Kerr will miss at least the first two matches with a calf injury.

The Chelsea forward is the country’s all-time leading scorer and the face of the tournament, but had to sit out the Matildas’ opening match against debutants Ireland and will miss the clash with Nigeria next week.

“Unfortunately I sustained a calf injury yesterday in training,” Kerr said in a statement just prior to kickoff. “I wanted to share this with everyone so there is no distraction from what we came here to achieve.”

Australia looked blunt in her absence but a 52nd-minute penalty from stand-in skipper Steph Catley was just enough to beat an Ireland side who refused to go quietly in their first game at a Women’s World Cup.

It ensured three points in a tough Group B as the Matildas kick-started their mission to get beyond the quarter-finals for the first time.

Australia were one of the pre-tournament favourites, along with England and several other major European nations.

But Megan Rapinoe’s United States are the favourites to win an unprecedented third consecutive title and a record-extending fifth overall.

They begin their title defence on Saturday against minnows Vietnam in Auckland, with European champions England in action the same day against Haiti in Brisbane.

– Spain hopeful on Putellas –

Spain, another of the favourites, hope to have Alexia Putellas fit for their opener against Costa Rica on Friday, coach Jorge Vilda said, but warned they will have to carefully manage her fitness.

The reigning two-time Ballon d’Or winner only returned to action in April following a serious knee injury and then withdrew 20 minutes into a  training session earlier this week.

“We have one training session to go this afternoon. All players are available to play tomorrow,” Vilda said Thursday on the eve of the match in Wellington.

Spain’s World Cup preparations were clouded by a player revolt against Vilda that saw 15 players declare themselves unavailable for selection. Three later returned to the World Cup squad.

Also on Friday, Olympic champions Canada face Nigeria with evergreen skipper Christine Sinclair in buoyant mood.

“We were overlooked heading into the Tokyo Olympics and showed what we can do,” said the 40-year-old forward, who has scored an incredible 190 goals in 323 appearances for her country.

“We can beat any team in the world.”

World Cup debutants the Philippines face Switzerland in Friday’s other match.