New Zealand may have achieved their goal of qualification for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 but they had to do it the hard way. Although the Kiwis started the qualifying tournament as favourites, the home side were nevertheless forced to overcome a number of obstacles during a gruelling week of competition in Auckland.
Tahiti, who had already upset the Oceania form book last December by qualifying for this year's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt, again proved the major hurdle for the regional giants. Coached by Lionel Charbonnier, a member of France's 1998 FIFA World Cup™ squad, the Tahitians only needed a draw going into the final match,, but the Kiwis prevailed with a 2-0 scoreline despite playing the second-half a player short.
Steve Cain's New Zealand side will certainly travel to Nigeria with a new-found level of confidence and self-belief after surviving the white-hot battle that was the final day of competition. Three matches in five days providing a brief but invaluable test for the Young All Whites as they now look to pit themselves against the world's best young talent when the FIFA U-17 World Cup commences in October.
The abbreviated schedule tested the mettle of all four competing nations, with New Caledonia and Vanuatu also showing glimpses of their abilities. Notably the opening day saw New Caledonia twice take the lead against Tahiti only to be pegged back with late goals blowing the scoreline out to 5-2.
It was a similar scenario in Tahiti's next outing, with Vanuatu drawing level with their fellow Pacific islanders on the hour-mark. However, weary legs and a numerical advantage in the final 15 minutes saw the Tahitians triumph 4-1 with Heiarii Tavana grabbing a brace to follow a goal in the opener.
New Zealand, meanwhile, followed up a 3-0 win against Vanuatu with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over New Caledonia. Andrew Milne scored for the second consecutive match, with the contest also notable for Jack Hobson-McVeigh narrowly failing to find the net from the halfway line, his spectacular shot hitting the underside of the crossbar.
The results left New Caledonia and Vanuatu eliminated with Tahiti holding a slender but important advantage on goal difference. New Caledonia claimed third place with a narrow 1-0 win over a tired looking Vanuatu on the final day of action.
Battle for glory
New Zealand had the better of the early exchanges in the pivotal match of the tournament with midfielder Zane Sole edging the home side in front on 28 minutes with a powerful header from a Hobson-McVeigh corner. Three minutes later, New Zealand were celebrating again as Milne scored his third in as many outings after pouncing on a loose ball to fire low past an exposed Teave Teamotuaitau in the Tahitian goal.
New Zealand were already thinking of their passage to Nigeria only to see the momentum of the match halted as Hobson-McVeigh received his marching orders for a second bookable offence. New Zealand though managed to create a number of scoring openings despite their disadvantage, while Tahiti were unable to penetrate Coey Turepa's goal despite some promising moments with dead-ball opportunities.
"When we went down ten men, we played like a senior international team not a junior team," said a proud Cain. "There were ten very strong New Zealanders out there and they did their country proud."
New Zealand's claiming the OFC U-17 Championship with three wins and three clean sheets, a fact which Cain says should stand the team in good stead in Nigeria. "There a bunch of boys there who deserve everything they're going to get, because not only have they not conceded a goal in an entire tournament, they've not looked like conceding. We going to be up against world class players in Nigeria, but if we defend like this we'll give ourselves a chance."