Tuesday 04 September 2018, 07:09

New Zealand’s Class of 2018 eyeing new heights

  • New Zealand head to Uruguay 2018 looking to break new ground

  • The first U-17 Women’s World Cup hosts have yet to reach the last-eight

  • Oceania champions will face Finland, Uruguay and Ghana in November

The last time New Zealand were on the pitch at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, they recorded a national record 5-0 win over hosts Jordan. Indeed, the tournament has always been a bit special for New Zealand, who hosted the maiden version of the event a decade ago.

New Zealand have appeared at every edition of FIFA’s youngest female tournament, but they have yet to progress to the knockout stage. But when the Kiwis cross the Pacific in two months to take part at Uruguay 2018, they will harbour high hopes of breaking new ground.

Following the draw in May, New Zealand coach Leon Birnie said: “While it [qualification] will be challenging to achieve, we are looking to become the first squad to create history.”

The Oceanian champions have been dealt a fascinating draw. They will tackle perennial African representatives Ghana, European debutants Finland and well-prepared hosts Uruguay.

“As a group we are aware that New Zealand has not qualified past the group stage at U-17 level to date,” Birnie told FIFA.com. “While we recognise the qualities of the three opponents in our group, and understand the challenges each will bring, we believe we have an opportunity to surpass this.

“We are looking forward to playing all three opponents, but especially the hosts Uruguay in front of what I’m sure will be a passionate and supportive home crowd cheering them on.

Youthful experience New Zealand eased through qualification even recording six unanswered goals against New Caledonia in the final. But that was over a year ago, and New Zealand’s opportunities for international matches are limited.

Birnie says he will be looking to those players who featured at the recent FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in France - Maggie Jenkins, Gabi Rennie, Aneka Mittendorff and Anna Leat - to “lead this group throughout the tournament”.

“We are very pleased with the squad that has been identified and feel we have exciting players that have demonstrated attributes and the ability to be more than competitive at this year’s World Cup.”

Ongoing development Birnie impressed in his only previous experience at a FIFA tournament. That was two years ago in Papua New Guinea where his well-drilled U-20 side defeated Ghana – who they face again at Uruguay 2018 – and pushed heavyweights France and USA all the way.

“There has been many learnings over the two cycles,” added Birnie, who became a father for the second time last week. “I now have the opportunity to apply them and help this group of players and staff potentially achieve something special.”

Regardless what happens at Uruguay 2018, Birnie is mindful that player and personal development is also part of his remit.

“The purpose of this age group has been to help players develop across a multitude of areas both on and off the field,” said the 36-year-old former New Zealand national league midfielder. “We have tried to educate, extend, and challenge players within our environments by exposing them to a variety of learning opportunities.

“While the World Cup is a pinnacle event we see this as another opportunity to continue to help develop players on the world stage. Through these experiences we aim to help transition players seamlessly into future age group teams, the Future Ferns Development Programme and then into the Football Ferns.”