Five players, five penalties, five stories

  • New Zealand advanced to the semi-finals of a Women's World Cup for the first time at any level

  • The Kiwis defeated 2014 winners Japan 4-3 on penalties after the match finished 1-1

  • Goalkeeper Anna Leat scored the winning spot-kick

"It’s an indescribable feeling, and one I’ve never experienced before."

Even an hour after the final whistle, Jayda Stewart still could hardly believe it. New Zealand had just reached their first FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup semi-final after beating Japan on penalties.

When goalkeeper Anna Leat scored the winning spot-kick, all the pressure that had built up throughout the match melted away to be replaced by unbridled joy as the team began their celebrations.

"Do you know what we just made?" the Kiwis’ coach Leon Birnie asked his young charges. "History!"

The fact that the winner of the quarter-finals had to be decided from the penalty spot just added to the drama.

COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO, URUGUAY - NOVEMBER 24: Anna Leat (L) of New Zealand celebrates the victory with her teammate the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Uruguay 2018 quarter final match between Spain and Korea DPR at Estadio Profesor Alberto Suppici on November 24, 2018 in Colonia, Uruguay. (Photo by Buda Mendes - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Five players took a penalty and each had a different experience. "We didn’t practice penalties. Our coach told us to pick a corner and focus on that,” said Grace Wisnewski. “We wanted to be confident heading into the shoot-out and knew that whatever happened, happened,” added Maya Hahn.

After that, all that mattered was the goal, the spot and the five penalty takers. "I told myself that we’d already achieved so much and could be proud of ourselves. That calmed me down," said Wisnewski.

Hahn’s experience was a little different. "I was very nervous when I walked up to take my kick," she said, "but when I got there, that feeling subsided and I stuck to my original plan of where I wanted to shoot. The fact that Anna had just saved Japan’s first penalty boosted my confidence and helped me."

Stewart also knew where she wanted the ball to go – into the top left-hand corner – and the 16-year-old was inconsolable when her attempt missed the target. "So many thoughts went through my head," she recalled. "I felt like I’d let my team down."

Yet her team-mates gave her a hug and encouraged her. "They picked me straight back up again."

Did you know?

New Zealand have a lucky song. The team play ‘Glorious’ by Macklemore on a continuous loop, and could be heard singing it together on the pitch after their victory over Japan. "It was playing on the radio after we won a qualifier last year, and we haven’t been anywhere without it ever since,” explained Maya Hahn. “It’s our anthem and it brings us luck."

This solidarity is what sets New Zealand apart and drives them on. "After I scored, there was so much adrenaline surging through my body – it was insane. I knew I’d done everything I could for the team," said Kelli Brown.

Goalkeeper Leat was unflappable throughout the shoot-out. She was the last Kiwi player to step up to the penalty spot – and ruthlessly converted her penalty. "I wasn’t nervous at all," she recalled. "I picked my corner about five seconds beforehand and then took the shot."

At that moment the party began – first on the pitch with fans and family, and then in the dressing room. "We want to enjoy it and celebrate. We’ll probably keep singing all night," laughed Wisnewski.

With the result decided, attention turned to post-match nutrition. New Zealand’s players pick the food of their choice after every match – and after this historic victory, they feasted on pizza, ice cream, chips and brownies!