In the long history of New Zealand sporting heartbreaks on home soil, the fate of the Football Ferns over the past week would rank quite high.
In time, there will be pride but this is a deep cut, the kind that doesn’t heal for a long time.
Ahead of this Fifa Women’s World Cup there was hope the Ferns would acquit themselves well – and reach their potential. But there wasn’t much conviction, after an underwhelming buildup.
That all changed on July 20, with the epic opening game at Eden Park, a night so rich in drama it turned the nation on to women’s football.
From there the ceiling seemed higher, with the path to the knockout stages much more feasible.
The dream was alive and very, very real, as hope changed to expectation.
That is what has made the last seven days so hard, with the shock loss to the Philippines followed by the gallant but ultimately fruitless draw against Switzerland.
Advancing to the round of 16 – with another capacity crowd in Auckland or Wellington – could have changed the sport forever and created local heroes.
That knowledge leaves a hollow feeling.
The scenes in Dunedin on Sunday night had echoes.
You thought of the 1988 Rugby League World Cup final at Eden Park, or the 1999 Netball World Championships in Christchurch.
Others would recall the 1992 Cricket World Cup semifinal defeat or the 2003 America’s Cup campaign.
They all left lasting scars but this is different. In those cases – and many more, like some historic rugby reverses – there will always be another chance, another tournament, another time.
Not with the Women’s World Cup. Barring some miracle of Fifa altruism, it won’t be coming back to New Zealand. It is too big – and only getting bigger – and hosting rights will be hoovered up by the other five continents.
That knowledge probably only accentuated the pain for the Ferns. As the final whistle blew on Sunday night, many of the New Zealand players seemed in a daze.
They had come close – painfully close – to extending their World Cup adventure by at least another week. They were the better side in the first half against a pragmatic Swiss team, who showed little ambition, aside from the counter. The Ferns gave the sellout crowd plenty to cheer about but had nothing to show for their endeavour.
New Zealand were unlucky, with Jacqui Hand finding the woodwork again, while other chances weren’t taken.
Tears flowed as the team did a lap of the ground to salute the crowd, while the Swiss rejoiced, while their large posse of journalists seemed genuinely surprised.
The day had seemed set up perfectly for a party. Fans flocked to Dunedin and the crowd created an incredible atmosphere of noise and parochialism.
The Ferns were noticeably lifted in the first half, while at times the Swiss were barely holding on. But they flipped the script after halftime – with a tactical switch in midfield and kept the New Zealand team away from the danger area. There was hope, even in the last few minutes, as the Ferns flung crosses into the box, but always a sense that time was against them. And so it proved.
Fern’s midfielder Malia Steinmetz, one of the best on the night, struggled to find the words.
“We are proud of ourselves and what we’ve been able to accomplish,” said Steinmetz. “But we wanted to get out of the group and we didn’t. That’s just black and white and so we are obviously gutted.”
Hand, one of the finds of the tournament, was trying to digest her third near miss in two games, with her first-half volley that struck the woodwork.
“It hurts,” said Hand. “It was a good connection then hit the post – I thought ‘you’re kidding me’. It’s definitely heart breaking.”
Co-captain Ria Percival was struggling to process her fifth World Cup group stage exit.
“There’s probably no words for it right now, mixed emotions,” said Percival. “We’ve left everything out on the pitch that we could have and it’s not the result we wanted. It will take a while, with the World Cup still going on in our home country. It’s a tough one to take.”
Midfielder Liv Chance admitted the Philippines game would be a “recurring nightmare”, and agreed it was a “missed opportunity”.
When everyone else had gone, Katie Bowen was the last player left in the mixed zone, the misery apparent in her eyes.
She was arguably New Zealand’s best player across the tournament but that was no consolation.
“I do feel very empty,” said Bowen. “It felt like it was within our reach.”
While proud, she agreed the Ferns had “shot ourselves in the foot” with the Philippines performance, a result that was going to “haunt” her.
“We fell just ever so slightly short,” she lamented.
Michael Burgess has been a sports journalist since 2005, winning several national awards and covering Olympics, Fifa World Cups and America’s Cup campaigns. A football aficionado, Burgess will never forget the noise that greeted Rory Fallon’s goal against Bahrain in Wellington in 2009.