It may have been Tahiti grabbing all the headlines after being crowned Oceania champions last month to win through to the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013, but the eight-nation tournament in the Solomon Islands also underlined New Caledonia’s consistent progress.
The Francophone pair met in the final, with Tahiti 1-0 victors in what was a match of missed opportunities at both ends of the pitch. Ultimately it was Tahiti who took the glory but New Caledonia once again proved their worth at continental level in emphatic fashion.
With the tournament doubling as Oceania qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, New Caledonia did what reigning world champions Italy failed to do at South Africa 2010 - defeat regional heavyweights New Zealand.
While the semi-final win was arguably the most momentous in their history, New Caledonia had already achieved their primary aim of reaching the last four to secure progression to Oceania’s third and final stage of Brazil 2014 qualifying.
The fact that New Caledonia are the only nation, aside from New Zealand, to reach the final stage of Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifying over the past two campaigns, further emphasises their status in the Pacific.
The French-speaking nation may be one of FIFA’s newest Member Associations, having been affiliated only in 2004 – appropriately enough it was at the Paris-based FIFA Centennial Congress in which their application was ratified – yet New Caledonia has a rich and vibrant history in the game.
The first Football Federation in New Caledonia was founded way back in 1928, making it one of the oldest in Oceania. The nation too can lay claim to producing the continent’s only FIFA World Cup-winner, with New Caledonia-born Christian Karembeu reaching the pinnacle of world football 14 years ago with France.
Recent times have seen New Caledonia constantly prove their worth, having twice been crowned South Pacific football champions, most recently on home turf last year. The narrow failure to claim a maiden continental crown in Honiara last month followed on from a second-placed finish at the previous OFC Nations Cup in 2008.
Prospect for immortality
That near-success four years ago helped New Caledonia reach an all-time high of 95 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Currently at 143, Les Cagous currently sit some way short of their peak position on the global scale, but they will have the chance to set a new benchmark over the coming eight months as the nation embarks on the third stage of qualifying for Brazil 2014.
New Caledonia will meet New Zealand, Solomon Islands and Tahiti home and away during that period, with the matches concluding in March next year. The winner will meet the fourth-placed team from the North, Central America and the Caribbean Zone, with passage to Brazil on offer for the victor.
September’s opening home tie against New Zealand is set to be among the biggest football matches ever to be played in the nation of 250,000 inhabitants. New Caledonia and their coach Alain Moizan can call upon a number of attacking outlets, with Jacques Haeko proving prolific in the Solomons to top the tournament’s goalscoring charts on the back of a six-goal haul.
Moizan has centred his team around powerfully-built attacker Bertrand Kai, defender Judikael Ixoee and the mercurial Marius Bako. Other stand-outs include experienced midfielder Olivier Dokunengo and speedy wide midfielder Georges Gope-Fenepej. The performances of Gope-Fenepej in Honiara did not go unnoticed, with the pacy forward promptly snapped up by newly-promoted Ligue 1 club Troyes.