The history books will say that continental heavyweights New Zealand won the 2016 OFC Nations Cup for a record fifth time. But the reality is that this year’s edition of the Oceanian championship will long be remembered for the increased depth and quality across the Pacific.
New Zealand were pushed to the brink in both the semi-final and final, and indeed they were out-played at times by New Caledonia and host nation Papua New Guinea respectively – two nations with very limited history of success. The latter failed in their bid for a historic maiden title thanks only to the lottery of penalties as the All Whites triumphed 4-2 in a shoot-out, following 120 tense action-filled minutes.
Despite the home side’s anguish, the tournament will long be remembered as a pivotal moment for PNG football. The Kapuls had never previously reached the last-four of the continental championship, and strong crowds were also on hand in Port Moresby throughout the tournament. A milestone year for PNG will continue in November when they become the first Melanesian nation to host a FIFA tournament - the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
The Nations Cup also doubled as Stage 2 in OFC’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying campaign. The teams which filled the top three spots in each group – Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tahiti – each kept their Russia 2018 ambitions alive. Stage 1 participants Samoa missed out as many expected, as did Vanuatu, who were left lamenting a narrow exit on goal difference. The sextet will feature in a home-and-away campaign, with the victor to face CONMEBOL’s fifth-placed nation. Meanwhile, New Zealand’s success means they have secured a fourth appearance at the FIFA Confederations Cup.
PNG’s breakthrough success
In a historical context, the rise of Papua New Guinea’s status over the past fortnight is remarkable. PNG had featured in just three previous World Cup campaigns until the commencement of this tournament a fortnight ago. Last year, however, there were signs of blossoming buds as the nation’s U-23 side claimed a bronze medal at the Pacific Games. That success, somewhat ironically, was achieved under New Zealand’s most recent former coach Ricki Herbert.
Late in 2015, PNG appointed experienced Danish mentor Flemming Serritslev. It was something of an ambitious move for both parties, with Serritslev little-known outside his homeland. But the calm demeanour of the 69-year-old proved a perfect fit for a PNG side consisting of mostly domestic-based players.
With a lengthy preparation, PNG displayed cohesion and new-found confidence to remain undefeated over the five matches of the tournament. It is a remarkable feat, given their modest track-record. “You could see that players had very good ability, but some doubt in themselves," Serritslev told FIFA.com. “I have been working on it (belief) since the very beginning. Now they do not doubt themselves and they have seen they can achieve results at this level.”
There was also personal recognition for PNG with striker Raymond Gunemba taking out the top goalscorer for his five goals. Kapuls’ captain David Muta was named player of the tournament.
It was also a case of so near, yet so far for New Caledonia, who were beaten by Tahiti in the final four years ago. Buoyed by the inclusion of several France-based players, Les Cagous again displayed their dynamic attacking play throughout, but suffered a 1-0 loss to New Zealand in the semi-final, despite dominating possession and attempts on goal.
Tahiti, whose 2012 success and subsequent showing at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup proved to be one of the feel-good stories of that year, were perhaps as unlucky as any side during the tournament. With little more than a third of their Brazil 2013 squad at the disposal of new coach Ludovic Graugnard, the Toa Aito impressed at times only to suffer narrow elimination on goal difference behind PNG and New Caledonia.
New Zealand won the other group leaving Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji contending for a last-four berth. Again goal difference was required to split three teams with a newly pragmatic Solomons finishing second, and Frank Farina’s Fiji edged into third by a single goal. Fiji, whose squad featured several personnel expected to participate at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, made a welcome return to form after some erratic showings over the past decade.
Kiwis building new foundations
New Zealand will be hoping that their success will lay the platform for what has also been a turbulent period. Coach Anthony Hudson’s two-year tenure has involved a period of regeneration for the national team, with several senior players moving on. Their squad for PNG was hugely inexperienced, a fact accentuated by the absence of captain Winston Reid and 11th-hour injury victim Shane Smeltz, while replacement skipper Chris Wood missed some matches due to a combination of injury and unavailability.
Several new faces made the most of their opportunity to shine, none more so than goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic with the 24-year-old conceding just once in the tournament, as well as making two pivotal saves during the tournament-deciding shoot-out.
Hudson believes Russia 2017 will be a good benchmark for his side, with the tournament to be played in the midst of their ongoing World Cup qualifying campaign. “What this tournament next year does is gives us an opportunity to see these players and push them into significant games,” Hudson said of his current squad. “(It is) a significant tournament that they deserve because we have some good players here.”