“Dare to dream” has been the catch-cry of the New Zealand U-17 women’s team and there is huge belief that they can be the first team from this country to make a FIFA World Cup Final.
The Leon Birnie coached team have made headlines in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay and their historic quarterfinal win over Japan on penalties sees them take on Spain in the semi-finals tomorrow morning (NZT).
The Oceania champions will go into the match against Spain as significant underdogs. The European champions won their fourth UEFA U-17 Championship in May when they beat defending champions Germany 2–0 in the final.Spain defeated the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on penalties in their quarterfinal.
Birnie says the New Zealand team have absolute belief they can upset Spain.
“Dare to dream that is what we have been saying to this group for a long time, well before we got over here,” said Birnie from Montevideo. “They are a confident side now and they have it in their heads now and they realise they can compete with anyone. We have shown that. As a staff, we have told them yes it is going to be tough, Spain are a really great side, but so were Japan. We were very good in that game in patches and then we showed the true Kiwi fight and grit, and were able to stay in that game in the second half. I don’t expect anything different in the Spain game.”
Birnie said it hasn’t been hard keeping his players grounded as they have toppled bigger nations Finland, Uruguay and Japan throughout the tournament.
“It is hard to get your head around the fact that if we win this match we are into the World Cup final. It is crazy for all involved. But we have tried to normalise every day and every game. I am not too sure how many of the players have thought about it in that context, but it is a big moment and one that we are doing everything behind the scenes to make sure we are fresh and give it their best shot.
“The players are very well grounded, it is in their nature as people. We have enjoyed the night of the wins and then we have refocused and go again. The girls have been really professional and that is really rewarding as a coach.”
Seventeen out of the 21 players selected for this NZ squad had never been to a FIFA Age Group World Cup before and Birnie has been impressed by the way they have handled the occasion.
“The experience of the players who have been in the NZ U-20s and previous World Cups is a big help. In the tough times out on the field and there have been plenty, they are the players who have stood up. For the girls who are playing in their first World Cup they have delivered some really big performances. There is maturity in this group beyond their years. That has added to us being able to compete and get results and get so far into the tournament.”
Birnie said as a coach it was hugely rewarding watching his team fulfil their potential on the word stage which could lead to future opportunities.
“Everything has come to fruition. It is great to see these players not only compete and win games but the amount of exposure they have had on the world stage. It will put them in a really good space for the future.”
Birnie said he and his team are fully aware of the incredible support from all New Zealanders back home and around the world.
“It has been a pretty amazing ride that is for sure. We are all well aware of how big this story is back home. The media interest has been huge. The way everyone has got behind the team has been amazing. There has been so much support and we are very thankful.”
FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Semi-final
Spain vs New Zealand
Estadio Charrúa, Montevideo
Thursday 28 November, 8am
Live on SKY Sport 4
Updates on Twitter @NZ_Football #U17WWC
New Zealand (from): 1. Anna Leat (GK), 2. Mackenzie Barry, 3. Hannah Mackay-Wright, 4. Aneka Mittendorff, 5. Marisa Van Der Meer, 6. Macey Fraser, 7. Gabi Rennie, 8. Amelia Abbott, 9. Maggie Jenkins, 10. Grace Wisnewski, 11. Kelli Brown, 12. Jayda Stewart, 13. Britney Cunningham-Lee, 14. Laney Strachan, 15. Genevieve Ryan, 16. Maya Hahn, 17. Ayla Pratt, 18. Rose Luxton, 19. Arabella Maynard, 20. Georgia Candy (GK), 21. Blair Currie (GK)
Coach: Leon Birnie
Published courtesy of NZ Football Photo Getty Images