The outcome of the OFC O-League proved to be the same as last year, with New Zealand giants Auckland City claiming a second successive title and a fourth crown in just seven seasons. However, the evidence from the campaign which concluded last Sunday is that of improving standards and increasingly tight competition.
Unlike in recent years, New Zealand’s two representatives – Auckland City and Waitakere United – were split into separate groups for the 2011/12 season. Yet although the pair have won all bar one edition of the tournament - Papua New Guinea‘s Hekari United claimed glory in 2010 - it was not to be an all-New Zealand final. Tahiti’s AS Tefana won through to their maiden decider, becoming the first representative from the Polynesian nation to reach the final since AS Pirae in 2006. Despite losing 3-1 on aggregate, their highly competitive showing suggests that Hekari’s 2010 triumph is unlikely to be a one-off.
The drawn out group stage commenced last October with the four teams in each pool playing six matches in total. The length of the campaign, combined with the variety of weather conditions across the Pacific, means erratic results are sometimes a feature of the O-League. Never was that more true than this campaign as finalists Tefana somehow recovered from an opening day 10-0 loss at Waitakere to finish ahead of their opponents in Group A, and very nearly claim the continental crown.
The Tahitians didn’t lose any of their five remaining group fixtures, wrecking revenge upon two-time winners Waitakere on the artificial surface at their Stade Louis Ganivet with an impressive 3-0 scoreline.
Such was their dominance after that opening defeat that Laurent Heinis’ side recorded a goal difference of 15-2 in their remaining matches, ending the campaign with a 5-0 win against Fiji’s Ba in a winner-takes-all contest. The result saw New Zealand champions Waitakere edged out by one point, with Ba a further three points adrift.
For a while, Auckland had it all their own way in a Group B that looked tough on paper. The Kiwis won their opening four matches before crashing to their first defeat at continental level in some 25 matches, dating back across four seasons. Amicale of Vanuatu, finalists in 2011, proved too good for the Kiwis in Port Vila, with 2010 winners Hekari United also holding the eventual champions to a 1-1 draw. Nevertheless, Auckland won the group by two points ahead of Hekari, with Amicale six points off the summit and Solomon Islanders Koloale trailing at the bottom.
Some lopsided scorelines have been recorded by New Zealand teams in the home leg of the final down the years, although this time Tefana gave themselves every opportunity after departing Auckland with a 2-1 defeat and a precious away goal. However, Manel Exposito extended Auckland’s advantage just prior to the interval in Papeete, and, despite late pressure from the home side, Tefana were unable to claw their way back into the contest.
“We knew it was going to be tight and in the end one goal was enough for us,” said coach Ramon Tribulietx at the conclusion of the second leg. “I think we deserve it when you look at the work we have put in over the season, and we are very happy.”
Exposito’s decisive strike was his sixth of the competition, and allowed the Spaniard to claim the season’s golden boot title. His compatriot, midfielder Albert Riera, was named player of the O-League season.
The final offered not only the chance to be crowned continental champions, but the opportunity to feature at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012. Auckland City are veterans of the tournament having made their third appearance on the world stage last December in Japan.