The 2012 edition of the OFC Nations Cup could, in years to come, prove to be a watershed event in the timeline of football in the Pacific. For the first time in the 39-year history of the continental tournament a Pacific Islands nation won, with the eight previous titles shared equally between Australia and New Zealand. Tahiti’s breakthrough success sets up a fascinating final stage of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying, with the Polynesians advancing by virtue of reaching the semi-finals alongside New Caledonia, New Zealand and Solomon Islands during the ten-day tournament in Honiara.
The Tahitians success caps a monumental period for the game in the remote nation at the far eastern end of the Oceania Confederation. Tahiti sprung a surprise by qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 before reprising continental success on sand to reach last year’s FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Italy. Having now achieved glory at senior level, utilising several members of the Egypt 2009 squad, Tahiti will experience even greater heights with their qualification for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brail 2013; another first for a Pacific nation.
Tahiti’s success, along with that of fellow finalists New Caledonia, is all the more remarkable given the rapid growth of New Zealand in recent years. Having failed to reach the continental final in 2004, the All Whites set up about rebuilding under Ricki Herbert culminating in qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, ending a 28-year absence from the world stage. Remarkably, New Zealand were the only undefeated team at South Africa 2010, though exiting at the group stage after three draws. To some it appeared that the All Whites would dominate their region for years to come, but the quality of football on display in Honiara and the numerous tight matches disproved that theory.
Undoubtedly the playing schedule, which featured five matches across ten days in fierce heat, made for a gruelling competition. However, unlike years gone by, there was little in the way of one-sided matches. Aside from the five matches involving Vanuatu or Round One qualifiers Samoa, only one of 11 matches was won by more than a goal. That single two-goal winning margin was achieved only in injury time as New Zealand pushing forward seeking a late equaliser against New Caledonia in their semi-final.
Perennial Pacific challengers Fiji were the most high profile victims and somewhat unluckily saw their FIFA World Cup campaign ended with elimination at the group stage. Fiji, who were the only team to defeat New Zealand during their entire South Africa 2010 campaign, lost 1-0 to the All Whites this time around, before playing out a tense scoreless drew against Solomon Islands in an epic and ultimately pivotal meeting, and lastly conceded a late goal against Papua New Guinea which ended any hopes for Carlos Buzzetti’s side.
Another high-profile coach, former long-serving Australia mentor Frank Farina, lifted Papua New Guinea to an impressive showing. Having returned to the international sphere only last year following a lengthy hiatus, PNG displayed their rapid development with narrow one-goal losses against New Zealand and the Solomons, before earning reward for their endeavour in that final match against Fiji.
New Zealand too go home disappointed having missing their goal of a FIFA Confederations Cup berth, although they will have the chance to make amends when home and away Brazil 2014 qualifiers commence later this year. “I’m hugely disappointed,” said Herbert of the semi-final exit against New Caledonia. “I’ve had 52 matches in charge and this is one of the worst moments.” The All Whites though will be boosted for their upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers by the return of influential captain Ryan Nelsen and fellow key defender Winston Reid.
The Solomon Islands again showed remarkable passion for football with massive crowds filling the natural bowl of the Lawson Tama Stadium, particularly when the Bonitos took the field. Although there was to be disappointment with a 1-0 semi-final defeat against Tahiti, local supporters can look forward to their looming Brazil 2014 qualifiers after the Solomon Islands wrapped up their group campaign with a 1-1 draw against New Zealand. Forward Benjamin Totori underlined his status as the Solomons latest goalscoring icon with a spectacular equaliser against the All Whites and a four-goal return for the tournament.
Undoubtedly the success story was the development of French-speaking duo Tahiti and New Caledonia. Although largely remaining out of the pre-tournament spotlight, the portents were good for the pair following New Caledonia's win at last year’s Pacific Games, while Tahiti’s various national teams had enjoyed continental success in recent years and AS Tefana reached the final of this year’s OFC O-League.
Yet just two cycles ago, Tahiti were trounced 9-0 by Australia and finished bottom of the six-team 2004 OFC Nations Cup, while New Caledonia were only affiliated to FIFA in the same year.
“It’s unbelievable, completely incredible,” said emotional Tahiti coach Eddy Etaeta, who shed tears of joy upon the full time whistle being blown on Sunday. “This path started 12 years ago and now we have finally achieved our goal and will go to the Confederations Cup.” Brothers Jonathan, Lorenzo and Alvin Tehau, as well as cousin Teaonui, created a fascinating sub-plot by scoring a remarkable 15 goals between them, while Tahiti captain Nicolas Vallar was named player of the tournament.
Though disappointed to lose the final, New Caledonia have shown they will be a force to be reckoned with throughout the Brazil 2014 qualifying and beyond. Coach Alain Moizan has a host of attacking outlets with Jacques Haeko finishing as the tournament’s leading scorer with six goals, while the powerful Bertrand Kai was a constant threat to each opponent.