It may have looked to be business as usual in Oceania this week, with New Zealand qualifying for their third successive FIFA U-17 World Cup. However, the Young All Whites were made to work extremely hard for their success in Auckland. Five matches in 12 days concluded with New Zealand working overtime to claim a 2-0 victory against Tahiti in a tough final that was perhaps emblematic of a gruelling tournament.
Ten of Oceania’s 11 member associations participated this time around; a significant increase on two years ago when just four nations vied for the crown. Recent years have seen exponential growth in youth development including the establishment of a number of academies and that was borne out in the scorelines. Gone were the double-digit victory margins that have invariably been a feature of competitions past.
The winners of the two groups moved straight into the final. With that rich reward awaiting the victor, Group B - featuring Vanuatu, Tahiti, the tournament's runners-up in 2009, as well as the perennially gifted Solomon Islands - was always going to be a tough contest.
Ultimately Tahiti, perhaps drawing inspiration from their U-20 brethren who in 2009 became the only Island nation to reach a FIFA tournament other than Futsal and Beach Soccer, finished a win clear of the Solomon Islands, with New Caledonia a further three points adrift. A 2-1 Tahitian victory over the Solomons on the second matchday proved the difference in a closely-matched section.
Not that topping the group, only to lose in the tournament final, proved satisfactory for Tahiti coach Patrice Flaccadori. “I’m disappointed for my players because they have worked hard for this for a year,” he said. “It is not a good result for us - we were here to win and it doesn’t matter if you come second, third or fourth.”
The Cook Islands will depart New Zealand with a degree of satisfaction after scoring eight goals, the bulk of which came in a 6-2 victory over Tonga. An achievement not to be lightly dismissed for a remote nation consisting of little more than 20,000 inhabitants. The performance over the past fortnight follows on from a fine showing at the 2010 OFC Women’s Nations Cup where a third-place finish was the country’s first ever medal at an international tournament.
Hard work earns dividends
Despite dominating large periods of each match, New Zealand were rarely able to overwhelm their opponents despite winning all five of their outings. Though finishing three points clear of Vanuatu, it was Fiji who provided the stiffest opposition as the Kiwis were forced to make do with a 1-0 margin of victory. There was to be further disappointment for Fiji, coached by former international Hussain Sahib, with the one-time Pacific heavyweights losing three of their four matches.
An early goal for New Zealand’s Cameron Howieson soothed any teenage nerves in the tournament decider. Though Tahiti enjoyed a solid share of the possession, they struggled to threaten the goal of the home side. Tim Payne’s strike late in the first half proved to be the end of scoring with the remainder of the contest largely played out in the midfield.
“We’re very pleased because we played a very assured game in the second half,” said New Zealand coach Steve Cain, a veteran of the Kiwis' impressive showing at Nigeria 2009 where they reached the Round of 16. “Young boys can be impulsive at this age so to play with discipline like that for 45 minutes is not easy. I told the last lot they would have to make the last 16 (at the FIFA U-17 World Cup) and they did, so I’ve told this lot they need to make the last eight. I think we can do it.”
New Zealand captain Luke Adams collected the Player of the Tournament award for his role in leading a Kiwi backline that conceded just once in five matches. Joining Adams in earning individual plaudits were New Caledonia’s Renaldo Nonmeu, who picked up the Golden Boot for his eight strikes, and New Zealand’s Scott Basalaj, who received the Golden Glove as the tournament’s best goalkeeper. Cook Islands, fourth place finishers in Group B, earned the Fair Play award.