New Zealand have perhaps grown accustomed to qualifying for the various FIFA tournaments at underage level in recent years. Indeed, since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, the Kiwis have qualified for every men’s youth tournament, save for an historic achievement by Tahiti in reaching the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Playing on home soil, New Zealand undoubtedly entered the recent Oceania qualifiers for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 quietly confident of repeating their successful progress to Beijing four years ago. The formbook did, indeed, prove to be correct, but only just. Fiji, for many years the foremost football nation amongst the Pacific Islands, turned on the power in the final and ultimately were unlucky not to win, or at least take the decider to extra time.
However, New Zealand managed to survive Fiji’s physical challenge for a tense 1-0 win to conclude the seven-nation qualifying tournament in the regional centre of Taupo. Missing numerous eligible players that they hope will be available come July, the Kiwis now can enjoy the fruits of their labour and begin planning for a trip to London.
Group A consisted of American Samoa, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, while the other section featured Tonga, hosts New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. The latter pair comfortably advanced to the last four from Group B.
Solomon Islands were surprisingly eliminated from Group A with a match to spare following successive defeats to Fiji and Vanuatu. They did however earn the biggest scoreline of the tournament with a 16-1 defeat of American Samoa. The result all the more remarkable with American Samoa leading 1-0 at the midway point of the first half. The lone goal for the Polynesians scored by Shalom Luani, the youngster whose name will forever be etched into the nation’s footballing folklore after recently scoring the winner in American Samoa’s maiden international win during Brazil 2014 qualifying. For the victors, striker Ian Paia collected a seven-goal haul in what was comfortably a record scoreline in the history of OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifying tournaments.
The semi-finals saw contrasting wins with Fiji rarely troubled in a 3-0 victory against the Frank Farina-coached Papua New Guinea. New Zealand, on the other hand, had to endure a nervy finale before triumphing 3-2 against Vanuatu, with Auckland City attacker Alex Feneridis setting up all three goals.
One shot at glory
New Zealand took the lead in the decider on 18 minutes in what was to prove the decisive moment of an enthralling encounter. Greg Draper, who has been prolific in front of goal this season for Welsh Premier League side, The New Saints, tucked home a penalty following a handball.
Having only edged the Fijians with a last minute winner in qualifying four years earlier, the Kiwis knew, however, that their passage for London was far from confirmed. Indeed, only the crossbar denied Fiji taking the lead with inspirational captain Esava Naqeleca, who was named player of the tournament, and Zibraaz Sahib both hitting the woodwork in quick succession with headers just after the break.
However it was Draper who proved hero of the hour, with the 23-year-old described his winning goal as the "highlight of my life". "We put our bodies on the line and defended like our lives depended on it, for the whole second half to be honest," said Draper who has already represented his nation at Beijing 2008, as well as the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
“Fiji threw everything at us,” said New Zealand captain Adam McGeorge. "It's finals football, it doesn't have to be pretty. They definitely gave us a few wake-up calls but that just showed the resolve of the boys to get the result.”
*Due to Fiji fielding an ineligible player in the final match against New Zealand, the FIFA Disciplinary Committee subsequently ruled that this game was forfeited by Fiji, with New Zealand duly awarded a 3-0 victory.