Never mind the coach-of-the-year gong at the annual Hawke's Bay awards, Leon Birnie should be up for higher accolades in New Zealand after his exploits with his girls at the Fifa Under-17 World Cup in Uruguay today.

Birnie's charges put the disappointment of bowing out of the age-group world cup final with a nail-biting 2-1 victory over Canada at Montevideo to claim bronze medals this morning before catching their flight home.

It wasn't just a tourney of expectations fulfilled but a swathe of historic moments recorded for other elite teams in the country to emulate, if not eclipse over the years.

In a country where home-grown coaches are religiously overlooked for foreign mentors in pursuit of global excellence, Birnie's conquests in the past few days should justifiably turn attention back to the backyard for contenders capable of moulding emerging talent.


The jubilant New Zealanders celebrated on the field, with the tourney mascot, as their faithful fans hugged in the stands while the Canadian players agonised and some even wept openly after the final whistle.

It was a character-defining moment for the Kiwis who, like the Canadians had made the playoffs for the time in their history, had put behind their disappointment of the 2-0 semifinal loss to Spain days earlier to focus on the task at hand.

In a post-match interview, Birnie said it was a dream finish following chapter after chapter of history-creating games.

"We've just created more history and now we've got a bronze medal at a world cup [so] how good are these players?" said the smiling mentor from Napier who is an employee of Central Football at Park Island.

Birnie was happy with the first half but saluted the pure drive and determination of his troops to hang on for the medal.

He is indebted to his coaching stable, players, family and friends who had made countless sacrifices to vociferously back them all the way.

Birnie lauded the support from New Zealand and the expectant media, dedicating the bronze medals to everyone.

The match, if judged purely on statistics, would have been a given to Canada but it just goes to show there's no discounting passion and motivation.


Canada looked threatening at times but their biggest flaw was taking heavy touches at pivotal times, although New Zealand captain Aneka Mittendorff and her defenders must take credit for their calm and composure in thwarting most attacks in their 21st under-17 world cup match.

The Kiwis created pandemonium and had Canada coach Rhian Wilkinson smiling ruefully when they broke the deadlock just 16 seconds from the kick off, the fastest goal in the tournament's history.

It came from a Canadian defensive blunder and New Zealand opportunism when Canadian leftback Julianne Vallerand pushed the ball back to goalkeeper Anna Karpenko who took a heavy touch to lose control. Kiwi striker Maggie Jenkins didn't need a second invite, ploughing into Karpenko to dislodge the ball for Grace Wisneswki to slide the ball into a gaping goalmouth despite centreback Jade Rose, who had earlier committed the sin of crossing to Vallerand across the face of the goalmouth, breathing down her neck in a bid to make amends.

The Kiwis extended their lead, 2-0, in the 13th minute, again from Wisnewski, after a through ball from centre-midfielder Amelia Abbott. The striker shrugged off Rose, leaning on her, to unleash a right-footer from just inside the top of the box to plant it on the top-right corner of the net as Vallerand was left grasping at this air.

That got Wilkinson to become increasingly agitated on the sidelines, barking instructions at the Canadians.

Gabi Rennie created another chance on the right flank but Kelli Brown's header from the far post went begging on the far post in the 37th minute.

In the second half, Wilkinson was conspicuous in her reaction to the Canadians' mediocre first spell when she replaced Vallerand with Ariel Young but it seemed the leftback was a scapegoat for a keeping howler.

She also injected Jessica de Filippo and yanked out Anderson Williams in the back line. Birnie, understandably, kept the faith in his line up.

Unlike Mittendorff, who picked up a yellow card in the 32nd minute on captain Jordan Huitema, Jenkins was lucky not to collect a yellow card for a crude tackle on defender Jade Riviere in the 54th minute from referee Riem Hussein, of Germany.

New Zealand coach Leon Birnie didn't leave anything out there in the past month at Montevideo in Uruguay. Photo / AP
New Zealand coach Leon Birnie didn't leave anything out there in the past month at Montevideo in Uruguay. Photo / AP

Birnie made his first substitution in the 55th minute, pulling out Macey Fraser and inserting Maya Hahn in the engine room.

It wasn't until the 64th minute that Canada got on the scorecard after New Zealand failed to mop up a couple of long-ball efforts from Huitema and Caitlin Shaw.

Lara Kazandjian woke them out of a slumber, eclipsing Hahn to the ball before unleashing a wicked left footer from just outside the top of the box into the right corner of the net past a diving Anna Leat in the goalmouth to narrow the deficit to 2-1 and their flag-waving fans something to cheer about.

Shaw would have had Birnie threading his worry beads when she just missed a crisp worm burner on the outside of the left upright in the 68th minute to denote the momentum had swung their way.

The Canadians raided the Kiwi goalmouth and the defenders' legs appeared to be heavy as they found themselves a stride too slow to clear balls at times.

Birnie pulled off Gabi Rennie and injected Britney Cunningham-Lee in the 75th minute soon after Jenkins fouled Huitema but the mini-wall thwarted the attempt despite kicker Kazandjian's appeal for a ball-to-hand shot from the ensuing free kick.

"Keep it going," a clapping Wilkinson yelled from the sideline, nervously glancing at her wristwatch.

In the 83rd minute, Abbott made way for Rose Luxton in the midfield after Huitema came close to finding the equaliser but Leat came rushing out to tackle the forager.

A minute later, Hussein flashed a yellow card at Mackenzie Barry but it was harsh for a collision because it was a 50-50 challenge on Young and no reason why the Kiwi defender needed to pull out of the tackle despite the Canadian gingerly hobbling off the pitch to have Sonia Walk replace her, following a fruitless free kick.

Brown joined the yellow-card brigade for hacking down Shaw near the sideline in the 90th minute as five minutes were added to the game.

However, the Kiwis were simply contend to sit back to clear any potential attacks into orbit for a memorable victory.

At the end of the 95-minute affair, it hardly mattered that Canada had hogged the ball (62 per cent), had 22 shots at goal to the Kiwis' nine and eked out 10 corners to two in yellow card-free effort.

As coach Wilkinson pointed out in congratulating the Kiwis, they were merely statistics and not indicative of the outcome.