Two years on from New Zealand’s historic bronze medal at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, OFC Media takes a look back at their successful ride.
In the first of a two-part series, we will chart their path to the global tournament, which began with victory in the OFC U-16 Women’s Championship in 2017.
Talent identification is a crucial part of Leon Birnie’s job.
As coach of the New Zealand women’s U-17 team he needs to unearth the country’s best players who will be selected in a national representative squad for the first time.
To begin a fresh youth World Cup cycle he will attend multiple matches and tournaments scouring the countryside to find the best players.
From there he will form a wider group that will eventually be narrowed down to play in OFC’s U-16 women’s event where the winner will progress to the next FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.
In 2017, after watching countless hours of football, Birnie settled on his squad that he took to Samoa for the qualifying tournament that ran from August 4-18.
New Zealand start many of OFC’s youth tournaments as favourites but that dominance is more pronounced in the U-16 women’s event where they’ve won every iteration since it began in 2010.
But favouritism doesn’t count for a lot unless you can deliver on the pitch and Birnie said his squad faced their own unique circumstances when they travelled to Samoa.
“With that experience comes its own excitement, its own nerves, its own challenges for the players, because they haven’t been involved in international games before,” he said.
“We go and we want to qualify, that’s our main focus. We want to put on good performances.”
At that age, some of the players have not even been overseas and are even less likely to have been to a Pacific nation where the temperatures soar and the conditions are not what they usually play in back home.
“It is a real shock to the girls’ systems,” Birnie said.
“It’s completely different talking about it on a PowerPoint to having them actually experiencing it.”
They made light work of their Group A opponents as they beat Tahiti 17-1, New Caledonia 7-0 and Samoa 8-0.
Despite the wide margins, Birnie said his squad had important markers to achieve in each match.
“We always have a big focus on your proficiency in front of goal, so it’s not how many goals we score, it’s how many chances we can create and do we take a high percentage of those, because that translates to World Cups,” Birnie said.
“When you’re at World Cups, you only get one or two or three chances in a game, potentially, so we start that process off.”
New Zealand’s dominance in pool play continued in the playoffs as they beat the Cook Islands 9-0 in the semi-final and New Caledonia 6-0 in the final to claim the OFC U-16 Women’s Championship 2017 title.
New Zealand’s Kelli Brown finished the tournament as Golden Boot with 14 goals, while teammate Maya Hahn was named the best player.
While he was pleased to raise the trophy, Birnie said the tournament was about putting other things in place for his squad as they eyed the World Cup.
“It’s not just about on the pitch, it’s a number of areas that we worked through while we are over there.”
Things like building a strong team culture and boosting the leadership in the squad were some of the focus areas and Birnie gave multiple players the opportunity to captain the team while they were in Samoa.
They had executed their plans to perfection so far, but the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay a year later would require them to take their performance to another level.
In part two on Wednesday, we will look at their dream run in South America.