Coach Leon Birnie watched his New Zealand side bow out of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup with a 2-0 loss to France last night but is hugely proud of his players’ efforts and believes there is a bright future ahead for many.
The Kiwis went into the French encounter at Bava Park in Port Moresby with every chance of progressing to the quarter-finals after beating Ghana and losing to USA in their previous Group C matches. A draw was likely to be enough to go through but France were also playing for their knockout hopes and scored early in both halves to put an end to New Zealand’s dreams of glory.
Birnie was full of admiration for the way his team performed though, both in that match and throughout the tournament, and admitted France were good value for their win.
“We’ve got mixed emotions,” he said.
“We’re gutted to be out of the tournament so are really disappointed in that regard. But, on the flipside, the girls have given everything out there and were absolutely dead on their feet. Sometimes you’ve just got to put your hands up and say the other team was better and France were. They’re a quality side and I think they’ll go a long way in this tournament.”
New Zealand U-20 Women’s coach Leon Birnie
Having conceded two early goals in making a disastrous start to the previous match against USA, Birnie set the underdogs up to be difficult to break down and stay in the game for as long as possible. It worked to a degree as they frustrated France for long periods and even carved out a few inviting scoring opportunities of their own. But goals from Marie-Charlotte Leger and Clara Mateo, in the 17th and 47th minutes respectively, were enough to get the Europeans through.
Birnie was pleased to still be in the running at half-time but felt Mateo’s goal straight after the restart was a hammer blow.
“Before the game, we talked about getting a good start and staying in the game. We didn’t start well against the USA and they put a lot of pressure on us,” he said.
“We wanted to relieve that so we went a bit more direct in the first half to stay in the game, then get to half-time and re-group. A draw could have gotten us through and when we came out of the sheds we thought we’d have a real go at them. But they scored so early in the second half and that killed the game off.”
With the result now looking beyond them, New Zealand then ironically enjoyed their best spell of the game.
“To our credit, we really rallied and had a good 15-minute period where we had a few half shots. We had a header off a free kick and, if we had taken that, we would have been back in the game. But, as I said before, France are a quality side and they were the better team on the day.”
Despite now leaving Papua New Guinea empty-handed, Birnie believes each squad member will take plenty away from the experience.
“It’s definitely a tournament to be proud of, these girls should be holding their heads up high,” he said.
“When we were drawn in the same group as the USA and France there were a lot of people who wrote us off. But we won that first game and put ourselves in a great position to try to get out of the group. It was always going to be challenging but these girls should be so proud of their efforts. I thought it was a really great tournament and I know a lot of the girls are going to have good careers ahead of them.”
One player with plenty to look forward to is certainly goalkeeper Nadia Olla, who is just 16 but took the field for the entirety of all three matches and, remarkably, is eligible to take part in two more U-20 World Cups.
It’s been a memorable period for the talented teen after she also featured in the New Zealand squad for the recent FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan.
“This is the best team I’ve ever been part of and it’s been the best experience of my life,” she said. “Coming in as one of the younger players, I’ve got to learn a lot from the senior players, like the captain Meikayla Moore and Jasmine Pereira.”
Olla was one of the team’s best performers, particularly in the first-up victory over Ghana, and is aiming to build on those exploits to launch a successful career.
“I was ecstatic after the first game and it was disappointing to come away with two losses after such a well-deserved win. But we can only look onwards and upwards and I enjoyed myself which is the main thing. I now just have to keep training, keep working hard and look to push for the Football Ferns.”
New Zealand U-20 Women’s goalkeeper Nadia Olla