Hawke's Bay coach Leon Birnie and his girls have added another fairytale chapter to New Zealand football history after booking a place in the semifinal of the Fifa Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay.

"All along we have said to the players 'Dare to dream' and we continue to do just that," said Birnie from Montevideo after the Kiwi teenagers upset favourites and former age-group champions Japan 4-3 in a penalty shootout after the sides were locked 1-1 in regulation time of their quarterfinal match.

The 36-year-old Central Football administrator from Napier went to bed well after midnight after receiving a flood of congratulatory messages from fans throughout New Zealand and abroad following their memorable achievements at the Estadio Alberto Suppici where the Japan players shed tears of despair.

The favourites had failed to break down a resolute defence of the underdogs despite an own goal from Hannah Mackay-Wright who had blocked the shot on the line but, inadvertently, turned in the confusion to see where it was and, in the process, stabbed the ball into the net.


But all that was forgotten as the Kiwi teenagers, after Amelia Abbott opened their account in the 17th minute, showed composure and a clinical edge in the penalty shootout with only Jayda Stewart getting under a pitch-wedge shot that curled well over the crossbar in a bid to seal Japan's fate.

"This is a special moment and one that we will treasure for the rest of our lives in becoming the first New Zealand team to reach a world cup semifinal. It is an amazing moment," said a Birnie, bleary-eyed but failing to disguise the pride that punctuated his reflections although the enormity of the team's feat hadn't really sunk in and was likely to bring smiles on their faces again tomorrow morning.

No doubt Birnie and his dedicated coaching and management stable would have to refocus on the task ahead against powerhouses Spain in an 8am kickoff on Thursday.

"We said before the game that great moments are born from great opportunities and one was born today with this historic performance," he said.

"The best part of today is we have shown that we once again can defy odds and defeat what's in front of us and we'll be looking to do that again in four days."

It's a proud and once-in-a-lifetime moment for coach Leon Birnie and his inspirational young charges at the Fifa Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay. Photo/file
It's a proud and once-in-a-lifetime moment for coach Leon Birnie and his inspirational young charges at the Fifa Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay. Photo/file

It was only appropriate that goalkeeper Anna Leat should have scored the last penalty kick to signal the New Zealand conquest considering the vice-captain had thwarted Japan in added time to keep the scores tied at 1-1.

Leat gave the victors a head start in the shootout when she thwarted the Japan captain before Maya Hahn, Grace Wisnewski and Brown ticked the box.

Leat found herself buried under a huge team celebration pile up with some concerned coaching staff trying to ease the load on her for fear of injuring her in the commotion.


"What a performance — these girls have come over here and game after game just defied the odds," Birnie told New Zealand Football.

"We'd never got out of the group before and we created history by doing that. Then today is a special occasion — no New Zealand team has ever reached a semifinal and now we've done it. I'm so proud of the girls and it was an amazing performance," he said.

Birnie paid tribute to Japan as a quality outfit who demanded all hands on deck to keep them at bay for the last 30 minutes.

The Aneka Mittendorff-skippered Kiwis' grit and determination that had left even Birnie amazed as his charges stretched out cramps and exhaustion to soldier on to the end against an opposition who adopted a regimented possession-based type of play.

That again was a stroke of master class from Birnie who had rested some key players in the 2-0 defeat to Ghana in the final pool A match on Wednesday.