The Junior Football Ferns made history on wednesday, becoming the first New Zealand women’s age-group side to qualify for the knockout stages of a Fifa tournament, with a 3-0 win over Costa Rica at the under-20 World Cup in Canada.
New Zealand will now play Nigeria, the winners of Group C, in the quarter-finals in Moncton on Monday morning.
Stephanie Skilton opened the scoring in the 24th minute in Toronto, glancing in a deep free kick from captain Katie Bowen, before Megan Lee added the second in the 69th minute, holding her composure and scooping home after being put clear behind the Costa Rican back four.
Substitute Tayla O’Brien added an injury time goal, turning in a corner deep in stoppage time.
The Junior Football Ferns join the 2009 and 2011 under-17 men’s teams as the only New Zealand sides to have reached the knockout phase of a Fifa age-group event.
Coach Aaron McFarland has been on the coaching staff of all three teams.
The Football Ferns were the first senior side to clinch a berth in the knockout stages of a senior Fifa event with their quarter-final appearance at the London Olympics.
McFarland said while yesterday’s match wasn’t the prettiest the team has ever played, the performance produced the required result.
“It was probably a little bit of a scrappy game when we look back at it,” he said.
“We countered efficiently and we were a lot more positive than we were in our previous games and we were a lot more effective in finishing off our opportunities. We did really well at the defensive end and Lilly controlled the back four, and we were a lot tighter than the previous games.”
“The players knew what we needed to win and that if we won, we were pretty sure to go through. Getting that goal settled us down and allowed us to get more into our game and we started passing more quickly and efficiently.”
With the team standing on the verge of achieving a long-held goal for women’s football in New Zealand, McFarland says the spirit and determination which underlined the Junior Football Ferns’ effort is something everyone can be proud of.
“I’m so pleased with the players. They took on the responsibility of keeping a clean sheet and taking on a battling approach to fight for a win and do whatever it took to produce a result. Those are some of the things you can’t coach and it’s up to players to stand up and that’s really pleasing that they played to win.”
The final whistle in Toronto set off jubilant celebrations and McFarland says while they’ll savour the moment, they are only part way to achieving their goal for the tournament.
“They’re over the moon and that exhilaration of winning will last for a few hours.
“We set a goal of the semifinals and that will keep the players’ feet on the ground and help us keep focused. I think the temptation is often there, now that we’ve made it through, to relax.
“We can’t afford to do that. We’ll enjoy tonight but tomorrow we’ll be back to tuning in for the next game.”