Chance of glory for Oceanian outsiders

The journey for Oceanian nations seeking passage to the FIFA Confederations Cup begins this Sunday in the Solomon Islands when Tahiti takes on New Caledonia in the OFC Nations Cup Final 2012. Eight teams contested a total of 16 matches over ten days to determine the region’s representative in next year’s showpiece in Brazil with the top advancing to Stage 3 of the FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The OFC Nations Cup 2012 winner will be the sixth nation to reach next year’s tournament in Brazil, with the two berths remaining filled by the winners of the CAF African Nations Cup and UEFA EURO 2012.

Oceania’s aspirants were divided into two groups, followed by semi-finals with the all-important final on 10 June.

Favourites, South Africa 2010 qualifiers and defending champions New Zealand were bundled out of the tournament following a shock 2-0 defeat to New Caledonia who will meet traditional rivals Tahiti after they ousted host nation Solomon Islands 1-0 in front of a packed house at Lawson Tama Stadium to set up a mouth watering Francophone final. It is the first time Australia or New Zealand will not finish in the tournament’s top two slots.

Les Cagous lead charge
New Caledonia, two times South Pacific football champions and OFC Nations Cup 2008 runners-up, will start as strong favourites if history and squad personnel are any gauge. The majority of their line-up starred in last year’s South Pacific Games football tournament triumph and could make it a hat-trick of international titles if they can fulfil their potential against Tahiti.

There are two players who have stood out among Les Cagous, namely 32-year-old midfielder Olivier Dokunengo of AS Mont Dore and speedy wide midfielder Georges Gope-Fenepej. Coach Alain Moizan has built his team around free scoring front man Bertrand Kai, defender Judikael Ixoee and the mercurial Marius Bako. The team has exceeded expectations after talismanic and long serving midfielder Pierre Wajoka, 33, was a controversial omission from the final squad.

“We’re not confident,” said coach Alain Moizan. “I am a bit worried because I hope our win over New Zealand doesn’t leave my team feeling like that winning that match was like the final. It will be difficult to motivate the players. Honestly, we never thought we would get this opportunity to play in the final. New Zealand was the big favourite but we’re happy to be in this final.”

Not only are Les Cagous hoping to lift their first continental title and qualify for the FIFA Confederations Cup, they are aiming to complete a treble of South Pacific Games and OFC Nations Cup victories – it is their fourth international final in four competitions.

Les Cagous faced a physical challenge in the match with New Zealand and he believes Tahiti bring a similar style that would test his team to its fullest, but Moizan was quick to point out that the difference between the two teams was marginal, saying: “We’re at full strength and I am happy with the work of our management staff. Winning this tournament is all about recovery. We won’t train any further for the match now it is all about being fit. Any injury or physical fatigue is purely mental.”

Tahiti seek to lose 'bridesmaids' tag
Their opponents Tahiti have prepared for this moment for 12 years according to coach Eddy Etaeta and have experience of their own to call upon. The Tehau boys, Alvin, Jonathan, Lorenzo, and cousin Teaonui, have all impressed, netting 15 of Tahiti’s 19 goals scored at this tournament.

“It is good for Tahitian football and our country to be in the final – we are happy to face New Caledonia in a surprise final," said Etaeta. "Now one of the French speaking countries in the region will represent Oceania at the FIFA Confederations Cup next year which I think will be very interesting,.

Tahiti have finished runners-up three times previously but it has been 16 years since they were in the regions’ top two and Etaeta believes they can go one step further and be crowned champions. Any concern over the intense rivalry spilling over into a temperamental affair are dispelled by Etaeta.

“There is always a physical aspect between these two teams because we have known each other for a long time. We have to focus on what we can do to win this game and not anything else,” he said.

In group play, New Caledonia nearly caused an upset. Trailing Tahiti 3-0, New Caledonia scored three goals in a stirring comeback before losing 4-3. Eddy Etaeta is confident his players have benefited from the experience.

“We will learn from this match,” he continued. “We know the potential of New Caledonia, so we remain focussed. We led 3-0 at half-time and our players lost focus as it was almost too easy for us. A team with nine or ten players can score if they are confident. New Caledonia played with a new system in the New Zealand match so we need to learn from this and prepare accordingly. Outside of the All Whites, New Caledonia have led the way for the rest of Oceania. They are very fast and this is a constant danger for us.”

New trophy
A new trophy will be up for grabs and is designed my Thomas Light Silversmiths. They are suppliers to The FA, The AFC and Major League Soccer. The three arms of the trophy represent motifs of Melanesian, Polynesian and Maori culture with the 11 member nations engraved on the top of the trophy. The glittering new design stands at 53cm high and is 21cm in diameter and is valued at $15,000 NZD.

Hosts and deposed holders to decide third
While a new champion will be crowned OFC Nations Cup 2012 winners, the hosts and deposed champions will meet in the third place match with only pride to play for. Passage to Stage 3 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ Oceania Qualifiers has already been secured,

New Zealand and the Solomon Islands have suffered unprecedented heartache. Coach Ricki Herbert may use the match to blood youngsters with an eye on London 2012 and the Olympic Games football tournament just around the corner while his colleague Jacob Moli is likely to use Benjamin Totori and Henry Fa’arodo as the host nation seeks a confidence boost ahead of Stage 3.