It's a case of one more sleep for the New Zealand girls and the licence to entertain wild dreams of booking a berth in the Fifa World Cup age-group final today.

That's what coach Leon Birnie and his terrific teenagers were contemplating when they called it a night at their hotel in Uruguay before their under-17 semifinal kick off at 8am against powerhouses Spain tomorrow (NZ time, live on SkySport 4).

The enormity of the match isn't lost on the Aneka Mittendorff-skippered Kiwis although Birnie stresses it's about maintaining a state of normalcy during a campaign where their historic accomplishments have been anything but that.

"It's a massive game. If we win it then we're in the world cup final and what a moment that would be," says the Napier mentor from his hotel in Montevideo before the match at the Estadio Charrúa, a predominantly rugby venue.


However, Birnie says for the staff it is simply trying to maintain an air of normality among the players.

"Each day we want to keep things as normal as possible where we talk to the players about the same things, go through our normal routines and keep things lighthearted at times for those who require that type of approach."

From where he's surveying the environment, it seems his young charges haven't let the big-game concept get to them and that suits him fine.

"They are quite special around their approach and they are really focused to go out and do a good job."

Birnie and his army of girls have watched countless minutes of video footage on the Spaniards to conjure some game plans to enhance their chances of adding another chapter to a spellbinding fairytale.

"They're a very good side and one of the two biggest footballing nations in women's football. They are very technical, they like to slow the ball and, individually, they like to build the ball up from the back all the way to the thirds," he says of Spain who have advanced in a 3-1 penalty shootout win after also drawing 1-1 in regulation time with no extra-time play.

In some respects, he believes the Kiwis embrace a similar philosophy but the onus is on them to disrupt the favourites from getting into their groove.

"If we can do that it will take us a long way in being successful in the game."


Birnie says amid the mantra of normalcy the players and coaching staff did allow for some warm fuzzies after pipping Japan 4-3 in the penalty shootout after a 1-1 stalemate in regulation time on Sunday morning.

For the record, Mexico play Canada in the other semifinal with the former also eclipsing Ghana in a penalty shootout and the latter pipping Germany 1-0 in the quarter-finals.

"We wanted to just enjoy the moment and the night. You know, you don't get too many moments like that so it's really important we do celebrate that along the way as part of the journey."

However, the next morning they rolled out of bed, attended his meeting and it was business as usual to realign for the next assignment.

Celebration, by the way, was "getting the hype out", to the sound of music, on the team bus on the way back to the hotel.

"They all brought out their best songs and they all start singing and dancing. It's really a good moment to be part of so when we get back, regardless of whether it's a win or loss, the meal is what the girls want.

"They always want pizza, chips and icecream so we make sure that's on the cards for them regardless of the results."

Birnie says the "cheat food" is often a welcome break and reinforcement from the rest of the meals in the duration of the tourney where stringent rules are adhered to in terms of nutrition.

Ditto the time allocated to them to engage in digital platforms in the privacy of their rooms to catch up with friends and family before it's lights out.

"It's kind of hard work for our team manager to try to get them all to bed so they can all be settled and sleep well for their recovery."

Coach Leon Birnie says the New Zealand Under-17 girls prepared for the penalty-kicking process during camps in New Zealand before jetting off to Uruguay. Photo/supplied
Coach Leon Birnie says the New Zealand Under-17 girls prepared for the penalty-kicking process during camps in New Zealand before jetting off to Uruguay. Photo/supplied

Birnie says against Japan they knew going into the penalty-kick scenario was to the Kiwis' advantage. The shootout process was something they had worked on during camps in New Zealand, including games against boys, where players oozing in confidence to step up to the spot were identified.

Some were keen, some weren't while a few were nonplussed about it and simply happy to deliver if called on.

"They were pre-arranged and for me the approach is you just need confident people who were going to deal with that pressure so they'd have a better chance of scoring."

Jayda Stewart, who had missed a game-clinching penalty kick, was initially disappointed in the belief that she had let the team down but when victory was sealed she had got caught up in the euphoria of the celebrations to put it behind her.

"It was one of those things, you know. Some people score, some don't and that's part of football."

Will Stewart have another go if it arose tomorrow?

"It'll be the same process so I'll be asking them all on the game-day morning so if she's in there we'll take her up and if she isn't, we'll give someone else the opportunity," Birnie says.

With 19 of 21 families at the venue, Birnie says the support has been outstanding and social media feedback have been used as motivational tools.

What about the coach?

"I'm pretty relaxed person, that's my nature. I can keep my emotions under check but, yeah, when you're in the penalty shootout to the semifinals so it's natural for the heart beat to go up a few notches," he says with a laugh.