Chelsea Women’s energetic full-back, Ali Riley, is New Zealand’s star player and is set to continue the honour of captaining her country in France, with her first fixture being against European champions, The Netherlands in one week’s time.
Skipper of the Football Ferns since 2017 and vastly experienced with over 125 international caps to her name, the LA-born player discusses with us her international memories and World Cup hopes…
What does it mean for you to be selected for your national team at a World Cup?
‘It's incredible. It's such a huge honour. You're representing your country, but for a country like New Zealand, where we are fighting so hard to improve conditions for female athletes.
‘It's such a small country and to have New Zealand represented at a World Cup is a really big deal. We're trying to inspire little girls to pick up a ball and start playing, and for the sport to continue to grow in New Zealand. It's a lot of pressure, but it's an amazing responsibility and it's hard to put into words how important it is.’
Just how excited are you?
‘Okay, this a very stupid question! No, it's amazing! It's kind of crazy, being the fourth time around, but you still get so excited about it because it's such a big deal. The tournament is getting bigger all the time, which also makes it a pretty incredible feeling and it's not something you take for granted.
‘With Chelsea we've just been in Paris and Lyon at the end of the season and you could see how excited that country is about women's football, so I think it's going to be an incredible tournament.’
Who are the favourites?
‘It's really funny – when you're in England, you can see what the FA is doing and I play with all these incredible players from different countries, but you feel the excitement here. You can see how far the team has come in a pretty short time, I think they're really feeling good under Phil.
‘But then you go to the US and it's like, “Of course we're going to win!” It's really good there are so many different countries at that level where they really believe they can win. That's the dream for us to one day be at that level.
‘We played Australia and they're looking really confident, too, but I'm really looking forward to seeing how England does. I've definitely been drawn into the excitement and that Lioness fever! They're one of the favourites and it wouldn't be a surprise if they go really far.’
Any other names to throw into the mix?
‘I think Australia could be a little bit of a dark horse. We have the Netherlands in our group and even though they haven't necessarily impressed so much since winning the Euros, they've shown they can step it up for a big tournament.
‘I think Germany has had a little bit of, it's hard to say a rebuild, but I've heard from some of my sources they're looking pretty good as well. And France, the hosts, of course. They're a team you always throw into the mix, and they haven't shown they can win of these big tournaments, but they're up there.
‘It's weird that they're being a little bit discounted because they haven't performed at big tournaments, but just look at the success of their players at Lyon. They seem very confident under pressure and they're used to winning.’
What do you make of your group?
‘It's a good group, a challenging one. We had Canada and the Netherlands in our group four years ago. Cameroon is the must-win, they're ranked lower than us and with the type of fixtures and results we've been getting recently, it's a game we've got to win.
‘We've never won a game at a World Cup, so that's our main goal, but we want to get out of our group as well. With a win you can, but the more points the better, and with Cameroon the last game, we also want to get a result against one or both of the other teams.
‘It's definitely going to be tough, but four years ago when we played Canada they were the hosts, so they had the crowd behind them; this time it feels like a bit more of an even playing ground. To get out of the group is a challenge, but not impossible.’
Will you be taking any home comforts with you?
‘People give me energy – I love my team and my parents and they're all going to be there. I'm so lucky my parents are able to afford to come to France and have been able to support me in following this dream – that's the most important thing.
‘Other than that, I bring a lot of snacks, because I love food, and that's basically it. It's hard to be in a hotel for a long time, but we're in cool cities so as long as I'm able to get out and explore I'll be fine.’
What is your most memorable moment at a World Cup?
‘That would have to be when we won our first point at a World Cup, against Mexico in 2011. It was our third game, we couldn't go through and we were down 2-0, but we came back to tie 2-2 in the last second of the game.
‘It might not seem such a big deal, but for our country that was amazing. This year it's time to take it to the next level.’