Ali Riley might have one of the most heartwarming stories of the 2023 World Cup, in a tournament that has been filled with them.
The New Zealand captain wore Pride-inspired colors on her nails because captains were not allowed to wear OneLove armbands in support of LGBTQ+ rights. She used nail polish to circumvent the “frustrating” FIFA ban, with the traditional rainbow Pride flag colors on one hand and the trans flag colors on the other.
And her small gesture took on a life of its own, even inspiring a mental health patient in an Auckland children’s psychiatric ward, she said on the latest episode of Just Women’s Sports‘ World Cup show “The 91st.”
“I just thought, this is a way to show what I believe in and to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community and to show people that I love them and I support them and I celebrate them even if I can’t wear this armband,” she said.
Following New Zealand’s tournament-opening win – the Football Ferns’ first-ever win at a World Cup – her nails went viral, which she didn’t realize until well after the game. In her postgame interview, cameras caught a clear view of her nails, which inspired one young patient to paint her nails in the same way.
After the victory, Riley received a message from someone who spends time with patients in a children’s psychiatric ward in Auckland, who shared Riley’s impact on one young girl in particular.
“She had been admitted because she had tried to take her own life, and they came into her room the day after the game, and she was painting her nails,” Riley said. “They were asking what she was doing.
“She said, ‘I saw Ali Riley on TV last night and I saw her nails and it gave me hope and I don’t feel alone anymore.’ And they just saw something change in her and saw a light,” Riley continued, noting that she believes the girl has since been discharged from the hospital.
“I would love to meet her one day,” she said, calling the message “the most incredible thing” that she’s ever received. “And again this was through somebody else, but it gave me so much perspective, which again helped me through the rest of the tournament. When I was very disappointed and heartbroken that we couldn’t achieve our goal of getting out of the group, I just thought, wow, the impact we make with our platform and with this gift and this privilege of playing on the world stage. It was never anything about me, but it motivated me even more to continue to do whatever small gestures.
“One small gesture can go so far and it was such an amazing reminder of that. Football is a game. And getting knocked out sucks. But to impact people’s lives in a positive way, that’s winning.”