Standing tall at the Netball World Cup
The Vitality Netball World Cup came to a thrilling climax last weekend, as New Zealand beat their antipodean rivals Australia - 11 times champions and three-times defending - by just one goal. It was agonising to watch, defensively both sides were suffocating, and shooting, ruthless. It was the sixth consecutive final in World Cup history between New Zealand and Australia, and the overall score in between them in all encounters could not be closer... Australia 759 goals New Zealand 758 goals (@netballscoop). It is the fiercest of sporting rivalries.
England were three goals away from facing Australia in the final. A final on home soil, for a chance to win the World Cup for the first time in history. The England team captured the heart, soul and imagination of the public - the reception they received each time they took to the court was truly astonishing. The atmosphere in the M&S Bank Arena was so electric, my ears are still ringing and my voice suffering. Despite heartbreak on Saturday, they came out fighting to win bronze on Sunday.
I took a moment during the closing ceremony to drink it all in. A packed stadium, on their feet, an 8000-strong mass, decked out in red and white, screaming and cheering for women’s sport and female athletes. Down the road, a packed-out fan park turning people away at the gates, as they had reached their 2500 capacity long before the finals had begun. At home, thousands more tuning in around the world, on BBC, Sky Sports or on YouTube. It’s clear - women’s sport is here, it’s happening, and it’s not going anywhere.
Alongside the Fed Cup earlier in April, I can not think of a more empowering arena I have worked in. It was truly a privilege to witness the best female athletes - and netballers are like Amazonian goddesses by the way - at the top of their games, putting on the greatest show.
I spoke with one older man who had never watched netball in his life and soon found himself buying a ticket for every session. For the Sunday finals, he turned up in a suit and tie - but had failed to find a ticket for the medal matches, instead content to watch the placings play-offs before quipping to me, “I’ll head out to Capetown for 2023” as he left. A man converted - a fan for life. He also gave me a packet of ginger nuts, which are one of the only vegan biscuits. He knew the way to my heart… (while we’re talking food, the M&S Bank Arena catering also did the BEST vegan food and I ate like a queen for 10 days).
There was a little bit of history too. Zimbabwe made their World Cup debut and their team spirit, and most joyful and noisy of fans became the heart and soul of the tournament. It soon emerged they had crowdfunded to be there, and coach Lloyd Makunde took £30 of his own money to a sports shop in the city centre to buy cones, resistance bands and other sporting equipment we take for granted. Ranked 13th in the world, they finished eighth, and along the way were involved in one of the best matches of the tournament - a two-goal win over Northern Ireland. Liverpool, at once, fell in love with the underdogs.
Four African nations made it to the last eight, despite reports of Uganda not having full access to courts. Imagine how good these athletic women would be if they had the same level of funding and facilities as the western world?
South Africa also made the final four, contesting the semi-finals for the first time and losing narrowly to Australia. They then fell to defeat at the hands of the Roses, but goal defence Karla Pretorius was named player of the tournament.
It was a joy to be presenting in the stadium alongside Charlie Brougham and the wonderful Red Sky at Night Events team. It was a sporting event that will have a lasting impact on Liverpool, the netball community and new and existing fans alike. With over 110,000 tickets sold, it was officially the biggest World Cup in history and has undoubtedly inspired new, existing, young and old fans. It even inspired me to get back on the court…