The past decade for the Solomon Islands has been a roller-coaster of stunning highs and confronting lows. Rarely, has that been better illustrated than over the past month during Oceania’s third stage of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying.
The Solomon Islands kick-started their quest for a ticket to Brazil 2014 with a highly credible 2-0 home victory over newly-crowned continental champions Tahiti. It was an impressive win for the Bonitos who, three months earlier had been beaten by the Polynesians on the same Lawson Tama stadium turf in the previous stage of qualifying; a tournament which doubled as the OFC Nations Cup.
Yet, just four days after disposing of Tahiti, the Solomons crashed to a 6-1 defeat against New Zealand. Again, the contrast with the result from a few months earlier was stark, with the Bonitos edged 4-3 by New Zealand in a hard-fought third-placed play-off, having drawn against the same opponent in the group stage of the Nations Cup just days earlier. The Solomon Islands could, however, point to some mitigating circumstances for the defeat in New Zealand, with some miserable wet and cold weather greeting a team used to Honiara’s searing sun and high humidity. Equally, the loss due to injury of goalkeeper Samson Koti in the first half proved a major blow.
The fourth-place finish in June’s OFC Nations Cup helped lift the Solomon Islands to 153 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, with the promise of a further jump on the back of looming Brazil 2014 qualifiers. It is still, however, some way short of the nation’s highest ranking of 120, achieved in both 2007 and 2008.
Yet the Solomon Islands greatest success came in 2004 when they sensationally held an Australia side, full of European-based players, to a 2-2 draw on their own turf. The result earned the Solomons a place in the 2004 OFC Nations Cup final and, at the same time, eliminated New Zealand from the race for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The Bonitos subsequently lost against Australia in both the continental decider and the Germany 2006 play-off. However, crowds well in excess of five-figures filled Lawson Tama's natural bowl for the visit of the Socceroos, and have done so ever since for Bonitos’ home matches; a remarkable achievement for a nation of half a million, the vast majority of whom live away from the main island of Guadalcanal.
Despite that passion the Solomon Islands suffered a surprise early elimination in 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying, failing to reach Oceania’s final group stage. Now, despite the erratic results of recent times, the Solomons are on an upward trajectory with the remaining Brazil 2014 qualifiers offering the chance to write another chapter in the nation’s proud history.
Present day challenges
The hefty defeat against New Zealand earlier this month means the Solomon Islands have little margin for error if they are to seal top spot in Oceania, and secure the play-off berth against a CONCACAF representative next year. Next up is a home meeting with New Caledonia on 12 October, followed by the return fixture four days later in Noumea. Next March’s final match at home against current leaders New Zealand could prove to be pivotal, provided the Solomons can stay in touch with the All Whites throughout the campaign.
Coach Jacob Moli fielded several players in the recent match against New Zealand that did not feature at the OFC Nations Cup. The ability of the latest crop to deal with the pressure of international football, and quickly find collective cohesion, could be fundamental to the Solomon Islands hopes of success.
“Given the pressure we’re under back at home, I think the commitment and the determination that the boys have is awesome,” said striker Henry Fa'Arodo. Captain Fa’Arodo, whose decade-long international career has spanned an eventful period in Solomon Islands football, offers a telling insight into the team’s mentality. “We believe in ourselves and anything can happen in football.”