Already well established as the national team to beat on the Oceania beach soccer scene, the Solomon Islands underlined their superiority by clinching a third consecutive regional crown. This latest success guarantees the Bilikiki Boys a place at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Dubai 2009, due to take place between 16 and 22 November.
The final of the Oceania qualifying tournament held between 27 and 31 July on the sands of Temae Beach in Moorea, Tahiti, has become something of a classic encounter. The Solomons and Vanuatu have now met in the last three finals of the regional competition, in 2006, 2007 and 2009 (the event was not held in 2008), with the latter winning each of the sides' group-stage encounters only to lose all three title deciders.
At this year's event, Vanuatu emerged 4-2 winners over their arch-rivals in their opening match before picking up further group victories over Fiji and Tahiti, 5-4 in extra time and 5-3 respectively. They also put up a real fight against the holders in the final, showing serious grit to only go down 1-0 despite a dominant performance by the Bilikiki Boys. Vanuatu keeper Chikau Mansale was the epitome of staunch resistance for the eventual runners-ups, making a number of excellent stops and saving a penalty, though he could do nothing about Gibson Hosea Purasi's winner in the second period.
"We've got better and better since the very first day. The final was very, very tough but the lads showed a tremendous will to win. Vanuatu gave us a real test, but my players remained very well organised and confident throughout and we're very proud to be going to a global event once more," said Solomons coach Henry Koto, whose charges bounced back from their opening-match defeat to record 4-2 and 11-2 wins over Tahiti and Fiji respectively.
"In Dubai our goal will be to reach the second round. We'll give it all we've got to get through the group phase," added the supremo, in a nod to the fact that the islanders failed to pierce that invisible barrier on their three previous trips to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
Finishing in the final place on the podium, meanwhile, were Tahiti, who battled back from a goal down on three occasions to clinch a 6-3 success over Fiji. "It was positive to finish with a win though we're still a bit disappointed because our goal was to win the tournament," said host nation coach Sebastien Labayen after the match for third place.
Starring for the Bilikiki Boys throughout was James Naka whose seven goals and exemplary all-round play earned him the tournament's best player and top scorer's awards. Receiving the Fair Play trophy was Vanuatu captain Seimata Chillia, while his countryman Mansale was voted best keeper.