For neutral football fans around the globe, the fact that New Zealand were the winners of a seven-team tournament which included Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tahiti and New Caledonia may not be all that remarkable. However, what was truly remarkable about the Oceania Football Confederation's Youth (U-20) Tournament held at the Trusts Stadium in Waitakere was the development of the so-called 'island' teams.
Arguably a watershed moment for these teams came on 2 November 2006, not in Auckland, the home of the OFC, not in Zurich, the home of FIFA, but on the Copacabana beach when the Solomon Islands defeated Cameroon by five goals to two at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. Although the win was not enough to take the Bilikiki boys beyond the group stages of the competition, it has served as a rallying call for the island nations and given them hope and the confidence to feel as though they can take on the big boys.
With Australia's departure to the OFC, the 'big boys' in Oceania are the All Whites, the hosts of January's continental competition. Speaking before the tournament began, coach Stu Jacobs admitted that there was pressure on his side to finish in first place. "Coming second is not an option," he said. "We expect to win the tournament. We are focused on getting to the World Cup and getting through the qualifiers is a stepping-stone."
Solomons shock hosts
A combination of a numerical disadvantage, nerves and the woodwork seemed to conspire against Jacobs' side in their opening match against the Solomon Islands on the first day of the tournament. Judd Molea's sweetly-struck 28th minute free-kick gave the underdogs the lead, but parity was restored when Sam Jenkins powerfully nodded home Leo Shin's cross five minutes later.
New Zealand were expected to pile on the pressure in the second half, but were instead dealt a blow three minutes after the restart when captain Jack Pelter saw red for his second bookable offence. Their frustration was further compounded with Jeremy Brockie and Craig Henderson both hit the woodwork, although the Solomons could easily have won themselves when captain Molis Gagame's stinging 85th minute drive deflected to safety off the crossbar.
Fiji got off to a flying start with a 7-0 win over Samoa, which included a hat-trick for Roy Krishna, who finished as the tournament's leading scorer with seven goals. The Fijians also enjoyed successes against Vanuatu (2-0) and the Solomon Islands (3-0), with Krishna bagging a brace in the latter. The hosts, meanwhile, were progressing in a professional manner. They enjoyed a 7-1 victory over Samoa, who failed to gain a single point in their six matches. A commanding performance from Fulham midfielder Chris James helped the All Whites to a 2-0 win over Tahiti to ensure that the match with Fiji would indeed be decisive.
Excitement, expulsions and escorts
The game of the tournament was undoubtedly the meeting of the top two on Saturday 28 January. It was the Fijians who took the lead when Krishna weaved his way past three flat-footed New Zealand defenders and struck a shot past Jacob Spoonley in the eighth minute.
James equalised from the spot two minutes before half-time, before Dan Keat nodded New Zealand in front. Fiji were back on level terms in the 68th minute when Krishna scored from the penalty spot, but less than ten minutes later Keat headed home the winner from a Jeremy Brockie cross.
Fiji were reduced to ten men in the 83rd minute when Kelepi Qaqa saw red for elbowing New Zealand striker Jeremy Brockie in the face as the pair chased a ball. Fearing the safety of the referee and New Zealand's players after the full-time whistle blew, the police were asked to escort the officials and the All Whites from the field of play.
"It was billed as the game of the big two so I'm happy we came out on top," said Jacobs. "I guess it had everything… some reasonable football at times, goals and lots of controversy."
The result also introduced a potential contender for a place in Canada, New Caledonia. The Pacific nation had won their opening three games against Tahiti, Samoa and Vanuatu. Tougher challenges were to follow for the French colony and two defeats in their final games left them in fourth position. It was the Solomon Islands who finished in third spot, with 11 points from their six matches. They were left to rue a 2-2 draw with Vanuatu, as a win in that match would have seen them finish second.
Final day confirmation
And so, it all came down to the final day as Fiji played Tahiti and New Zealand met New Caledonia in afternoon kick-offs. The All Whites' player of the tournament, James, missed two first-half penalties against New Caledonia, but scored a last minute goal to ensure qualification. As it was, James' concerns were ill-founded anyway as Fiji were upset 2-0 by Tahiti in a match that finished on an adjacent Trusts Stadium pitch just seconds before the All Whites' dramatic winner.
Coach Jacobs was overjoyed afterwards as New Zealand, who finished four points clear of Fiji, became the 22nd qualifiers for the 24-team FIFA U-20 World Cup which takes place in Canada between 30 June and 22 July. "I said to them I don't care how you win just as long as you win, we're off to a World Cup so I'm not complaining," he said. "People can say we've made hard work of it but as I've said throughout whole tournament, the Island teams aren't easy to beat anymore as Tahiti have shown against Fiji - and New Caledonia and Fiji has shown against us."
New Zealand striker Jeremy Brockie said qualification was a dream come true. "A lot of young people dream of playing at a youth World Cup and not many get the opportunity so we've got to take it with both hands and make New Zealand proud," the Sydney FC striker said. "It's a dream come true for me. A lot of people were on our backs coming into the tournament but the lads stuck together and look at us now… we're on a plane to the other side of the world!"