I’m a bad tourist, maybe that should be the caveat to all of this. It’s not even that I used to self-fund, cutting corners where possible, taking coaches going straight to airports that had me in and out of new destinations before my feet could barely touch the ground. It’s just that I’ve never had much of a love for the outdoors and some generalized anxiety in my gut tends to keep me rooted in place. So I’m a bad tourist.
But how often do you find yourself in another hemisphere? How often do you get to do the “must dos” of visiting far-flung countries like Australia and New Zealand? And how many fans couldn’t make the trip because of the cost? This tournament gave me a rare chance — not the act of covering a major tournament, as I’ve done that three times before — to let people live vicariously through me. So there’s the touristy side those who couldn’t make it missed out on, the sheer experience of the places I’ve been as well as the hustle of covering a tournament or being here as a journalist.
I’m sure there are better people to live vicariously through, or at least more who can reach the top shelf, but alas, it’s me, and this is my World Cup experience.
AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Wake up in the morning feeling like … nevermind, it’s not long after 5 a.m. and I manage to do a whole bunch of nothing before heading off to launch myself off of Auckland Harbour Bridge. It’s a low-key day as we start to amp into the World Cup.
ROTORUA, New Zealand — I actually get up and out in good time to make my flight down to Rotorua, an area known for its geothermic activity.
First there is Wai-o-tapu and Lady Knox geyser, the latter with an induced eruption early in the morning, but one that’s only accessible by car — I’m on foot. A friendly tour bus driver overhears and offers to take me up the “road” to the site; it’s not the first, and won’t be the last, friendly gesture I encounter in New Zealand. Lady Knox bubbles over before shooting a jet of water into the sky and there’s an opportunity to make a dirty joke or four.
Despite the winter season, wai-o-tapu is an enchanting place to walk around, with tufts of smoky steam fizzing from unseen craters. The trees striped over their leaves gives an odd scorched-earth feel, augmented by the taste of sulphur in the air. The highlight is Roto Kārikitea, a crater filed with brilliant lime green water, and then it’s back into town to catch a coach to Taupo so I can see “the world’s coolest McDonalds.” It’s got a declassified Douglas DC-3 aeroplane attached and is a fun novelty, but by mid-afternoon, it’s already riddled with people’s leftover rubbish.
ROTORUA, New Zealand — With the World Cup organizers earnestly trying to embrace the Māori and first nations cultures of New Zealand and Australia respectively, I take a short trip to Te Puia to learn more about Maori culture, see some Kiwi [birds] and watch the highest geyser in the southern hemisphere — the latter was the main event.
First there’s an introduction to the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI); we learn how the institute works and how the majority of the cost of our tickets for the day goes to the institute and students — just four per year are taken on — who are taught traditional carving and weaving to keep it alive. Before COVID, the guide mentions, the school also had a traditional tattooing workshop, but the pandemic has hit New Zealand’s tourism hard and as is the theme of my trip this month, everyone is feeling the pinch.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Then there’s the kiwi conservation area, where the lights are dimmed low, photography is verboten and we’re encouraged to be as quiet as possible. We see two of the three birds they have; kiwis are surprisingly massive, but they’re also solitary creatures. I feel both on a spiritual level.
We watch as Pōhutu Geyser erupts and I wonder where the nearest loo is, but there’s little time to take in the scene as our tour has booked to see a cultural performance that gives us all a Pōhiri (traditional Māori welcome), Waiata (song), Mōteatea (traditional chant), Poi and Haka. We’re welcomed into their meeting place and get to enjoy traditional songs performed by a group of Māori.
There is an explanation of the sticks that are thrown while they sing — it’s a game at its core, but one intended to strengthen hand-eye co-ordination — and we’re then told about the bulging eyes and stuck out tongue that accompany the Haka: intimidation tactics so a battle can be avoided.
With time to kill before my flight back to Auckland, it’s a trip to go Zorbing. The difference when you going to Zorb Rotorua is the giant plastic zorbs you crawl into have a basin of water (warm in the winter, cold in the summer) in them so when you start rolling down the tracks, you slosh and slide around as if taken by the current.
I can’t stop from laughing all the way down in the Zorb, wearing a t-shirt and shorts that you can rent if you don’t have a change of clothes as you will get as soaked. On the trek up to the next course, the driver explains the whole staff have Ferns kits bought for the World Cup and that they’ll wear them on matchdays. A nice little nugget that I instantly forget as I go down the second track and the Zorb wraps and curls through the bendy course.
I can’t stop giggling.
You: I’m not clicking that
Me: You sure? pic.twitter.com/5jVzzGsABd
— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) July 19, 2023
AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The big day — opening day — had arrived, and first up was a live record for ESPN FC. Toggling off the “do not disturb” on my phone, Twitter and Whatsapp lit up, with a lot of notifications. The news and concern was about the shootings, something I had been blissfully unaware of as I attempted to justify my World Cup bracket, but the news was grim and shocking.
I spent most of the day sat in my hotel room, not quite knowing what to do with myself. There was no danger that came with stepping out of the door, but people had lost their lives, multiple people were injured and many would be dealing with the shock.
When I finally left for the game, I hit heavy traffic and immediately got overwhelmed, although I got to the stadium in good time and got settled. Before the first game of the World Cup, there was a question of what to expect that hung in the air: how much bearing would the shooting have, and what are the Ferns’ chances on the pitch?
The answers came quickly, the opening ceremony already an upgrade on France 2019, and having been at Te Puia, I immediately understood the significance of the tableau created on the pitch around the meeting of two tribes and the acceptance of friendship. Then there was the football, and one of the best performances New Zealand had mustered in recent memory. They benefited from having every player fit and ready, but their hunger was palpable. The goal was richly deserved when it came, with the Ferns dominant and Norway once again looking lost.
Bungee jumps, zorbing & local culture! Sights and sounds of the World Cup
Sophie Lawson reveals what she has been getting up to away from attending matches at the World Cup.
WAITOMO, New Zealand — As soon as someone says “glowworm caves” you have to indulge, don’t you? After a rushed sleep, I rushed my way out in the driving rain to the coach station… missing my bus by two minutes. I still managed to get down to Waitomo in time for my pre-booked tour, the rain easing as we moved 200km (125 miles) south of Auckland.
We learned about stalactites and stalagmites, plus the life cycle of the worms, and then we clambered into our boat and weaved through the watery cave, our guide steering while stood on the bow. They twinkled above our heads like the glow in the dark stars you might stick on your ceiling as a child (or cool adult) — it was serene and calming.
Winding back up the road to where the coach picks up and drops off is a run-down visitor centre and small museum about the caves in Waitomo. There are souvenirs to be bought, but the shelves are sparse and it’s not because they’ve had a mad dash on merchandise. The woman who keeps herself busy behind the counter let us all know that the coach back to Hamilton frequently runs late; she’s also friendly and honest when I ask about the impact of the pandemic on the town. “It’s down to about 30%,” she says, before mournfully admitting that she had to fire six staff members.
The day finished by watching Switzerland out-muscle the Philippines before Spain dispatched with Costa Rica in the first half an hour.
HAMILTON/DUNEDIN, New Zealand — I think I like Hamilton: it’s a neat little stadium that’s walkable, but it’s already time to say goodbye and make my first trip to New Zealand’s South Island.
Dunedin is an odd little city that I see nothing of, opting to jump in an Uber rather than walking 20 minutes up and down the rain-soaked, asphalted hills to and from the stadium, giving me time to watch Sweden snatch a late winner against South Africa. The Portugal vs. Netherlands game is uneventful and I’m glad that this is the stadium with a roof; struggling to focus on the game, I instead spend the whole evening thinking about my soggy socks.
I get back to my hotel in time to watch Jamaica hang on against a perpetually disappointing France team and get close to waxing about how all four European teams were deeply underwhelming on a dreary day in the southern hemisphere.
Dinner is a rocky road slice picked up at Hamilton airport — the clear highlight of the day.
DUNEDIN/AUCKLAND, New Zealand — After less than 24 hours in Dunedin, it’s back to the airport and back to Auckland after three nights away.
Auckland is dry and mild and I’m glad, but I have little time to spare and laundry to do. With clothes washed, dried and haphazardly thrown on my bed, there’s just enough time to get across to The Cloud to scope out the fan zone. It’s nice enough, but sparsely populated and after doing a full lap, I’m back out the door and on my way to Eden Park.
It’s rare that I get to sit in the stands as a fan, but the crowd is in good spirits and I manage to track down a pair of friends and get an up close look at the Argentina away kit: she’s gorgeous. I sample some of the multiple food offerings at Eden Park and buy a garish and expensive trucker hat, but it’s all in the spirit of the day.
While trying to work out how one actually eats candy floss [cotton candy] — face first is not the play — Girelli scores for Italy and that’s that, match decided.
Morocco’s Rosella Ayane shows her World Cup technique vs. ESPN
Morocco and Tottenham’s Rosella Ayane goes head-to-head with Bryana Gold in a series of skills challenges.
It’s New Zealand vs the Philippines — of course it is, I should probably set an alarm — by the time I get back to my hotel, Germany have just finished dismantling Morocco and Brazil are getting ready to impress against Panama.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Time to check out of my hotel, and seemingly, not a moment too soon with a rapidly expanding sinkhole having opened in the Auckland central business district (CBD). It’s raining in the north when I head down to Wellington, where there’s rain on the daily. Yet when I land, the weather is glorious: comfortable, not-jacketed weather and clear blue skies.
My Uber driver is even kind enough to take me on the more scenic route, so we drive parallel to Evans Bay as the afternoon sun glints off of the turquoise water before winding along to get a clear view of Wellington CBD across Lambton Harbour. It’s a beautiful view; I rue the fact I’ll have to go straight to the game after dropping my suitcase off at my hotel, craving an afternoon stroll in the fresh air of the world’s southernmost capital.
Sky Stadium — or “Wellington Regional Stadium” as it’s called for the tournament — is accessed by walking through the station and up a long ramp and is, frankly, a schlep. The match is tense and error-strewn but the fans bring the atmosphere and mild tinnitus apt for a stadium nicknamed the Cake Tin (something, something, cake tinnitus). The disappointment is palpable from the Ferns after the match, who won’t be drawn in on feeling pressurised after the Norway loss, but for a team that usually only gets given the favourites tag during OFC qualification, two and two usually makes four.
DUNEDIN, New Zealand — I’m not awake long enough to work out if the storm is still raging outside, but the wind is hammering by the time I wake up three hours later. Thanks, Wellington.
Having talked to a journalist about domestic flight delays the previous night, remarking I had yet to encounter any, I instantly ran into one en route to Dunedin. Despite it being a technical issue that waylaid us in the capital, our trip to the south island was uneventful.
Japan were good but not overwhelming, Costa Rica were shaky but clearly still growing as a young side.
Post-match, my Uber driver Stanley was dismayed to learn I’d be leaving in the morning and wouldn’t get to see any of his home city, and began to point out the local landmarks, highlighting the ornate carvings in the stone. Dunedin, as I learned, had been home to a gold rush and was the first place in New Zealand to be granted city status thanks to the rapid inflation of the population due to the prospecting. Dunedin was home to the first post office in New Zealand and its’ railway station is the second most photographed building in the southern hemisphere (behind the Sydney Opera House).
Just a normal World Cup day pic.twitter.com/0uNTfQJ1YJ
— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) July 29, 2023
ADELAIDE, Australia — It’s a low-impact day in South Australia and while I might be due one by this point, there’s another trip to the Hindmarsh for Morocco’s historic win over a lacklustre South Korea team before I dash back to my hotel to tuck into the last round of games. The lack of broadcast deal in Australia on free-to-air TV reduces me to only following one of the two simultaneous Group A match, Norway’s demolition of the Philippines the logical choice before Colombia do a madness over Germany.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand/PERTH, Australia — The damn 10am check-outs are a problem, but this time I’m none too fussed as I have a 10.15am guided tour of Te Papa, the museum of New Zealand. My time is limited but I try to take in as much as possible; there’s enough time for me to go on a windy wander before tracking down Quasi, a 16-foot sculpture of a human hand with a face on it. He stands, teetering on the roof of Wellington City Gallery and, shamefully, is one of my favourite things from the trip so far.
— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) August 1, 2023
My day wouldn’t be completely without at least one trip to an airport as I once again say goodbye to New Zealand, there is time for a little work before boarding a flight to Melbourne. Portugal come within a whisker of causing the biggest upset at a World Cup to date against the U.S., while the Netherlands make sure Vietnam go home with their tails firmly between their legs.
Onward then to Perth, with cabin lights dimmed and blankets laid out on seats. The wonders of wi-fi mean I can augment my viewing with updates from the last two games of the day: China were underwhelming, Lauren James was superb and Haiti unfathomably, are going home without managing a single goal.
PERTH, Australia — Ah, the fourth time zone of the World Cup as I visit the furthest host city from the others. It’s (respectfully) bemusing, but of course I had to come.
With no football and no travel on the docket, there’s room for a jaunt to East Fremantle to find the Sam Kerr mural, tucked away and painted on the side of an office: it’s easy enough to miss if you were going the other way. Following the first two games of the day, Italy bow out as Sweden’s reserves best Argentina and South Africa scoop the headlines, well, for two hours at least, with a late win over Italy.
Visiting the giant Sam Kerr mural in Western Australia
Sophie Lawson takes a trip to a huge mural of Sam Kerr in her hometown of East Fremantle in Western Australia.
Marta Cox scores an outrageous goal for Panama against France as I get stuck into some Hainanese chicken rice, but Herve Renard’s side complete the comeback before I finish the bowl. However, there’s a pressing need to watch the other game as Becky Spencer claims a third clean sheet between the posts for Jamaica, knocking Brazil out in the process.
Marta’s time at the World Cup — all World Cups — is done, following fellow veteran Christine Sinclair home without progressing to the knockouts. Melbourne inadvertently plays host to the end of another illustrious career.
MELBOURNE, Australia/AUCKLAND, New Zealand — I fall asleep on the plane and dream about being on a different flight, which might be understandable after 18 flights in 24 days; days, planes and host cities have all blurred into one. There was of course, the Lawson-esque dash to the stadium to make kick-off and this time, I didn’t miss any goals. Spain played angry, trying to expunge their loss to Japan as Switzerland crumbled like stale crackers before Japan saw off a fighting Norway side.
The night ended in the normal way with a trip for weird ice cream: it was one of the few things I had penciled in for Auckland but had forgotten during my initial visit and wanted to make sure I crossed off before jumping back over to Australia. They were known for their Colossal Squid creation, but upon seeing their plane (fine: “rescue helicopter”) I knew I didn’t have much choice and opted for toffee/honeycomb flavour.
It was delicious and massive and ridiculous but also technically breakfast, albeit at 9 p.m., and it was another day of the tournament done.
MELBOURNE, Australia — After an age without a match when really it’s only been two full days, we’re back and the day is dominated by Colombia vs. Jamaica. Catching up with friends before the game, there’s talk about the game and women’s football more broadly, the conversation will begin again later that night as France fire on all cylinders against Morocco.
The stadium is rocking with Colombia fans and Catalina Usme delivers, finally breaching Becky Spencer’s goal and sending the Reggae Girlz out. The tournament rumbles on as 16 is whittled down to eight.
Australia and England fans go head-to-head during semifinal
Watch the reactions from both sets of fans in Melbourne and London as England booked their tickets for the Women’s World Cup final.
MELBOURNE, Australia — It’s my last day in Victoria, time to actually do something touristy or experiential or something that isn’t just sitting in a hotel room bemoaning the worst wifi in Australia.
First up is the Sky Deck, the highest observation deck in the southern hemisphere: it ticks the box for something I can’t do anywhere else so I head off and even opt for their “Edge” experience. Rather than just staying in the main building and looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows out across the horizon, you can stand in a glass box that hangs off of the side of the building, suspended 88 floors above the Melbourne CBD. The weather is perfect and the three other people I’m in the box with are the right mix of excited and terrified.
Then there’s a short walk to National Gallery of Victoria for some art and/or culture before bopping off to see some more street art — something you don’t have to go far to find in either Australia or New Zealand. Time has faded away all too fast and there’s no chance to get to the Science Gallery before it closes, nor grab a croissant — heralded by some as the best in the world? — from Lune.
The sun is again starting to descend into the horizon, so frustratingly early — it is winter here, to be fair — so I allow myself a walk around Chinatown before heading to Melbourne’s once a week winter market. It’s dumb luck that I’m free on a Wednesday, the same night as the winter market that runs until the end of August, and opt to check it out, not expecting it to be swarming with locals.
There’s a raft of food stalls, all with eye-popping lines, but I try some skewers — the smell of the smoke coming off of the grills too alluring to avoid — and grab an overly grisly porchetta roll. I make eyes at some crème brulee and peruse the other stalls, spray-painted clothing, second-hand books, posters, sunglasses and jewelry, there’s a good mix but the crowds refuse to thin out and I head back to my hotel, making a pit stop on the way for a Slurpee. Airport again in the morning.
With ten days of the World Cup left, time for a little look back at what I’ve been up to since I landed 29 (?) days and 18 (?) flights ago.
Keep ’em peeled for more of my face, but mostly, more of what I’ve seen/where I’ve been pic.twitter.com/Q5X3VsGtOF
— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) August 10, 2023
MELBOURNE/BRISBANE, Australia — The tournament rest days have fully kicked in and the days don’t quite seem as frantic when there is no football occurring, which should be a blessing, but somehow there’s a flight to be taken because of course there is, from Melbourne to Brisbane followed by a hotel check-in and some checks to make sure the wi-fi is good enough for the incoming video requests. We talk about the round of sixteen and continue to further jinx Japan.
BRISBANE TO AUCKLAND, New Zealand — It’s quarterfinal day and after nowhere near enough sleep, it’s back off to the airport to hop back over the Ditch to Auckland, catching up with as much as the Netherlands-Spain game as possible when we touch down. The match seems to have played out predictably with Spain finishing on top, but attention fast moves to Sweden vs. Japan in the moonlight at Eden Park.
Japan are rattled and Sweden play their best; by the time Nadeshiko rally, the damage has been done and they slip out of the tournament, unable to suppress the storm of heartbreak that comes with the exit.
Is this Australia’s luckiest football fan?
Marissa Lordanic catches up with Emily, a Matildas fan who was given Sam Kerr’s jersey after Australia’s 4-0 win vs. Canada.
BRISBANE, Australia — Brisbane is hot, it has that close rising heat that makes it feel like an English summer, and the idea of actual summer in Australia makes me want to cower in a hotel, bathing in the touch of air-conditioning turned to max. Nevertheless, it is also the first match so far this tournament that has felt like a World Cup in terms of short sleeves and damp pits.
Australia and France play out a stalemate and when it comes to penalties, the continue to cancel each other out, the crowd uproarious throughout, the crescendo that marked Kerr’s introduction firmly broken by the spot-kicks. Strike after strike, save after save, they just kept going until finally, Cortnee Vine. The hour, the moment, the woman, cometh (etc) and again, the noise. The sheer uncut euphoria in the stadium, social media filled with videos of Vine Time watched around the country, the whole nation joining together, eyes focused, rapt on what was unfolding in Brisbane.
The history made, the tears, the out of body laughter, the warm night air, a World Cup legacy unfolding.
BRISBANE, Australia — Another rest day. My first stop in the mid-afternoon, already bathed in moonlight was the Wheel of Brisbane that was, well — it’s a wheel. Basically a big ferris wheel, or like a very small London Eye that gives sprawling views of the third largest city in Australia. It was nice but it was also a wheel at night.
As in Melbourne, I dumb-lucked my way to a night market, although Brisbane’s Eat Street was a sizable upgrade, the vast dockland market stalls offering food from all around the world: the fried chicken was exceptional and bahn mi irresistible. While the tandoori naan-wich a disappointment, a tropical granita made for the perfect thirst-quencher – a sublime way to spend an evening and fill your belly.
BRISBANE/SYDNEY, Australia — The new week brought an early start for video as predictions were laid and quarterfinals revisited. Then, of course, there was the needlessly early check-out and trip to the airport, the moody grey clouds sitting low in the Sydney sky when I landed, a taste of home.
Annoyed with my increasingly shaggy hair and with little to keep me occupied, I found a hairdresser around the corner from my hotel and for the first time in over 13 years, someone else cut my hair. And of course, we got talking about the World Cup, the barber — a rugby fan — much like the rest of the nation had been caught up in Matildas Mania much like the rest of the nation.
SYDNEY, Australia — Her name is Olive and she’s an 18-month-old wombat who, rather than her bowl of raw sweet potatoes, seems more interested in tasting the fabric of my shirt and trousers. I even think her nose trying to get at the phone in my pocket. Her handler at Featherdale Wildlife Park apologises she’s not usually like this; it’s fine, I have that effect on women is what I think, but I don’t say it aloud. Instead, I continue giving Olive’s back a light scratch as her nose finds the bowl of root vegetables.
There are also plenty of kangaroos and wallabies to be fed at the Wildlife Park, koalas to be fawned over, and far, far too many birds flying around, leaving white splashes on the ground as they fly overhead.
I venture out to wake myself up ahead of the second semifinal and run into a clutch of women’s football folk from a recently renamed social media platform. The conversation swings toward England vs. Australia: the game, the tournament, koalas and of course English politics, before football again.
Desk for the night pic.twitter.com/sqHE61dXQ5
— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) August 16, 2023
I watch the match from the Fan Festival and the overflowing crowd losses its collective mind when Kerr scores that goal, the air let out of the park by the time Alessia Russo makes it 3-1. At full time, the crowd evaporates into the cool night air and the World Cup final is set: England vs. Spain.
SYDNEY, Australia — It’s time for Equal Playing Field’s Equality Summit again, nestled as it traditionally is, between the second semifinal and final. The topics of the panels are diverse and ask bigger questions around the sport before an offer of Korean chicken with co-workers takes me across the city and presents an all-too rare opportunity for socialising and catching up.
Spain celebrate after arriving home as Women’s World Cup champs
The Spanish women’s national team celebrate in front of fans following their win at the Women’s World Cup.
Chicken becomes a trip to a bar with a precarious spiral staircase and questionably named cocktails. The conversation spins around sport as one double becomes two and the herd thins out until there’s just three of us still standing, albeit slightly wobbly, getting turfed out when the bar closes at 2 a.m.
SYDNEY/BRISBANE, Australia — Flight 24 comes and goes, and I find Brisbane cooler than it was during the quarterfinal as I prepare for the third-place game. After the exertions of the losing semifinal, the Matildas seem dead on their feet before the game’s even begun, the 90 extra minutes seeming more like punishment than a change for redemption.
Sweden look fresher and are worthy winners, picking up their second successive bronze World Cup medal.
— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) August 20, 2023
BRISBANE/SYDNEY, Australia — It’s too hot in Brisbane for what should be a bitter winter day, and sunglasses are a requisite for the drive back to the airport, the flight like so many, punctuated with Matildas kits, so many of us heading for Stadium Australia. The pitch invader, Olga Carmona’s World Cup-winning goal goal and a dash outside long before the whistle goes to set up for a live YouTube show makes for a different kind of final experience.
We tumble back to Sydney’s CBD in our droves, finding a bar that will allow us to sit and talk over drinks until 4 a.m., exchanging goodbyes and “safe travels” as the sun threatens to rise over New South Wales. That’s it: we all stare directly as a new World Cup-less week begins.
Wait: did I jump off of a bridge a month ago?