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 second instalment of this two-part series, we will examine their run at the tournament in Uruguay in 2018. Catch up on Part One here.
Before the 2018 edition of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, New Zealand had won only two of their 15 matches from five previous visits to the global event.
Pointing that statistic out isn’t done to discredit previous New Zealand sides but more to illustrate how challenging it is to perform on football’s biggest stage.
With those numbers in mind, New Zealand women’s U-17 coach Leon Birnie did his best to set his players’ expectations on the right path when he met with them before they went to the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay in November, 2018.
“We were really honest with this group; really honest and upfront,” Birnie said.
“We pitched to them World Cups are tough, they’re challenging, they’re extremely hard … But at the same moment there was enough in this room that we’d identified that we felt we could challenge that and we presented that to the players.”
New Zealand earned their ticket to the World Cup as Oceania’s representative having breezed through the qualifying tournament the previous year.
Birnie did his best to foster an environment where the players drove their team culture.
“We had a slogan – ‘Dare to Dream’ – and that was around being realistic and having steps or goals along the way but not losing sight of what is our dream and at a minimum we said: Win a game and then we wanted to get out of the group and that’s what we felt we could do.”
Advancing from Group A would not be a picnic though considering they were matched with Finland, Ghana and hosts Uruguay.
Birnie’s team met Canada in a warm-up game before the tournament, which turned out to be one of the major building blocks for their success.
“When we beat Canada 2-1 in the game before the World Cup, it just clicked in. I could just see it in the players, there was a real belief in them there.
“We felt a switch. It was so evident after the game and that just flowed into the World Cup.”
Their first pool match was against Finland and Kelli Brown’s 41st-minute strike proved the difference as they edged the Europeans 1-0.
That win provided another dose of belief and things got even better when they came back from a goal down to top Uruguay 2-1, booking their spot in the quarter-finals in the process.
New Zealand dropped their final pool game 2-0 to Ghana but the focus quickly shifted to a knockout match against Japan.
“I knew it was going to be extremely challenging but we were confident that we could get a result,” Birnie said.
Japan have excellent pedigree in women’s youth football but the Kiwis were at the top of their game.
New Zealand led 1-0 early on through Amelia Abbott but Japan fought back and with no extra-time being played a penalty shoot-out was required with the scores locked at 1-1 when the final whistle blew.
The team had worked on penalties while in Uruguay and Birnie said they juggled their penalty takers on the day to ensure they were sending confident players to the spot.
“Our advice, we’d spoken to them all and we kept it really simple: Have clarity in your head, which way you’re going and go that way; it was that simple.”
The strategy worked as New Zealand won the shoot-out 4-3 with goalkeeper Anna Leat the hero as she saved a spot kick and later scored the winning penalty.
This sent New Zealand to the semi-finals where Spain proved too much as the Kiwis went down 2-0. Spain went on to win the final 2-1 against Mexico.
But Birnie’s team weren’t done and they met Canada on December 1, 2018, this time with a bronze medal on the line.
Grace Wisnewski scored twice setting up a famous 2-1 win, putting a bow on what was the best performance by a team from Oceania at a FIFA age-group event this century.
“It was a great ending to a fantastic journey that these girls went on, that New Zealand went on,” Birnie said.
“What was pleasing throughout the tournament was there was so many aspects of what we’d worked on as a team that came to fruition and that was so cool.”
New Zealand’s run at the tournament captured the attention of the sporting public throughout the country who followed the matches with great interest.
Birnie said he received a mountain of messages from back home and was ecstatic with the support they garnered.
His class of 2018 set the benchmark for future teams to emulate.