An historic first-ever place in a final is now off the cards for New Zealand but they still have much to play for after a 2-0 loss to Spain in the semi-finals of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay.
Coach Leon Birnie and his ground-breaking side will now look to become the first national team from their country to earn a medal when they take part in the play-off for third on Sunday morning (NZT).
Despite their semi-final defeat, New Zealand will take plenty of confidence into that encounter after again proving they belong at the very highest level with a strong showing at a rain-soaked Estadio Charrúa in Montevideo this morning (NZT).
“We knew today was going to be challenging but, in that first half especially, we really took it to them,” Birnie said.
“There were long periods of that game where we had them camped in their half and we hit the crossbar. But we then switched off for their first goal and that was an absolute killer. They then showed their class with a great strike in the second half and it was always going to be difficult to come back from two-nil down,” he added.
“But I’m so proud of the players, they tried everything they could until that final whistle and it’s been a fantastic tournament – it’s an amazing moment for football in our country.”
With the exception of fielding a fresh-look side in their final group game against Ghana, Birnie has retained a very settled starting line-up throughout the tournament and again kept faith with the group of players who have made history for their country, making no changes from the quarter-final win over Japan.
There was no doubt they were coming up against one of the best sides in the world with Spain having won their European qualification and scoring 11 goals on their path to the semi-finals in Uruguay, conceding just two.
But New Zealand had already beaten some top-class opponents on their own remarkable march to the final four so were not going to be overawed by the classy Spanish and showed they were more than capable of causing another upset in a tight first half.
As expected due to their possession-based style, Spain enjoyed much of the ball but New Zealand pressed forward at every opportunity and actually had the better of the sights on goal. They enjoyed a good spell of pressure around the 15-minute mark before Kelli Brown tried her luck from distance but was a long way out and her looping effort dropped just wide of the top corner.
Despite all their possession, Spain were struggling to create anything going forward, thanks largely to several vital interventions from New Zealand’s inspirational captain Aneka Mittendorff. When the next good chance did arrive, it again went the way of the Oceania champions in the 26th minute, Gabi Rennie being played in down the right by Amelia Abbott but her shot from a tight angle couldn’t beat Spain goalkeeper Catalina Coll at her near post.
Just a few minutes later, New Zealand went even closer to opening the scoring when Coll got the faintest of touches to a perfectly-placed strike from Macey Fraser and it bounced agonisingly off the crossbar. It wasn’t until the 34th minute that Spain came anywhere near to a goal themselves, captain Clàudia Pina glancing an effort off the base of the upright.
But the same player would soon be responsible for giving them the lead when a cross broke to her in the box and she smashed it past Leat to put Spain in front at the break.
The underdogs needed to begin the second half well to get back into the game but the highly-accomplished Spaniards weren’t about to let a place in the final slip through their grasp and extended their lead soon after the restart in stunning fashion. A loose ball dropped to Irene López outside the box and she unleashed a unstoppable volley that fizzed in off the inside of the post for one of the goals of the tournament.
If any were needed, it was a reminder of the sort of quality the Kiwis were up against and they couldn’t produce a similar moment of their own as they looked to fight back from two down.
Substitute Maya Hahn tried to get her country back into the game with a shot from distance on the hour but it was an ambitious effort and went wide. Anna Leat had been forced to make a good save at her near post earlier but had little else to do as Spain did not seriously threaten to add to their lead.
New Zealand kept pressing to keep their hopes alive and their best moment of the half arrived when a pair of substitutes combined to good effect in the 83rd minute. Britney Cunningham-Lee picked out Ayla Pratt with a perfect through ball but Coll did well to come out and block the effort of Pratt at close range.
The industrious Grace Wisnewski then caught a defender in possession and fired off a shot under pressure but Coll was able to make a comfortable save as Spain closed the game out.
New Zealand will now take on either Mexico or Canada in the play-off for third at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup on Sunday morning (NZT).
“The players will be disappointed tonight but we’ll refocus and if we can win that play-off game then that will be another special moment,” Birnie said.
New Zealand 0
Spain 2 (Clàudia Pina 39’, Irene López 48’)
New Zealand: 1. Anna Leat (GK), 2. Mackenzie Barry, 3. Hannah Mackay-Wright, 4. Aneka Mittendorff, 5. Marisa Van Der Meer, 6. Macey Fraser (16. Maya Hahn 53’), 7. Gabi Rennie, 8. Amelia Abbott, 9. Maggie Jenkins (17. Ayla Pratt 76’), 10. Grace Wisnewski, 11. Kelli Brown (13. Britney Cunningham-Lee 76’)
Substitutes not used: 12. Jayda Stewart, 14. Laney Strachan, 15. Genevieve Ryan, 18. Rose Luxton, 19. Arabella Maynard, 20. Georgia Candy (GK), 21. Blair Currie (GK)
Coach: Leon Birnie