Pre-tournament expectations heaped pressure on New Zealand ahead of the OFC U-20 Championship in Auckland, but the hosts delivered in style to comfortably qualify for Colombia 2011. Despite their pedigree in Oceania, the Kiwis have surprisingly participated in only one FIFA U-20 World Cup, that being Canada 2007. They lost out to Tahiti two years ago, with Australia providing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle prior to their move to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006.
This time, however, Chris Milicich’s charges, rated by some as one of New Zealand’s most accomplished all-time youth teams, proved themselves worthy champions. They hit 22 goals in their four matches, conceding just once, in a 3-1 final defeat of Solomon Islands in a victory that was more comfortable than the scoreline suggested. New Zealand’s authority was evident in the respective semi-finals as the Junior All Whites overpowered Fiji 6-0, while Solomon Islands edged past Vanuatu on penalties.
Island hopes dashed
Vanuatu topped the four-team Group A ahead of Fiji, Papua New Guinea and American Samoa. Coach Moise Poida led the team to three dominant victories and a draw to earn a semi-final meeting with the Solomons. Conversely, Fiji scraped into the last four with only a 5-1 last-round win over American Samoa, helping them narrowly past surprise package PNG on goal difference. It was to prove a disappointing tournament for one-time Pacific Island giants Fiji, who enjoyed a lengthy preparation. The team competed together throughout the most recent national league season and also spent a month together in New Zealand prior to the tournament.
The standings were far more clear-cut in Group B, where the home side eased past the Solomons and a disappointing New Caledonia. The French Polynesians would have hoped to match the achievements of their Tahitian neighbours, who three years ago qualified for Egypt 2009. However, New Caledonia conceded 13 goals in the two matches, contrasting markedly with their last appearance when they finished runners-up behind Tahiti, who surprisingly didn’t send a team this time.
The host, for their part, won comfortably 3-0 in their group opener against the Solomon Islands, before dismantling New Caledonia with ten unanswered goals. Notably, seven of New Zealand’s goals came from set-pieces, with captain Nick Branch and his centre-back partner James Musa cashing in with a hat-trick each.
New Zealand continued their good form in the knockout stage, easing past Fiji before then winning against the technically gifted, but ultimately outclassed, Solomon Islands in the final. Cory Chettleburgh fired home from close range in the early stages but the Mamulas restored parity via Himson Teleda midway through the first half, albeit against the run of play. Two quick-fire goals early in the second period sealed the contest as first Andrew Bevin, with a spectacular overhead kick, and then Dakota Lucas scored.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Milicich. “Finals are never easy - it’s do or die on both sides. But I thought we were the better team and deserved to win.”
When asked about his team’s chances at Colombia 2011, where they have been drawn alongside Cameroon, Portugal and Uruguay in Group B, Milicich responded: “How good are we? It’ll be a great chance for us to benchmark these players against some very good teams from outside Oceania and find out where we are.”
Vanuatu sealed third place with a 2-0 win over Fiji, with both strikes coming from Jean Kaltak, whose six goals were enough to win him the Golden Boot, while Solomon Islands No1 Silas Seda was nominated the best goalkeeper of the tournament. Junior All Whites speedy attacker Marco Rojas was awarded the Golden Ball as the most impressive outfield player, which follows on from an electrifying breakthrough season with Wellington Phoenix in the A-League.