For many, it was to be a bright new dawn for the Confederation. Finally after years of struggle to reach sporting parity, here was a tournament to really get excited about. But after beginning so promisingly with Fiji's defeat of New Zealand, Oceania's Youth Championship ended prematurely and under the darkest of clouds as crowd violence forced the abandonment of the final between hosts Solomon Islands and regional heavyweights Australia.
The Young Socceroos march onwards to another world finals then, but they will have had the glorious taste of victory cruelly spilled from their lips by the ugly scenes around the FIFA-funded Lawson Tama stadium. An estimated 25,000 crammed inside the ground in the capital Honiara with many, many more locked outside. Shortly after Australia virtually clinched the match with their third unanswered goal, trouble broke out and the referee, after consultation with local police and OFC officials, abandoned the match in the 77th minute, handing victory to Australia.
It was an extremely depressing end to a fine run by the local side, whose performances in running through the group stage and defeating Vanuatu in the semi-finals had whipped up high hopes among the Pacific Islands' poverty stricken population. In a country ravaged by street violence on a massive scale, football has become one of the few things worth living for. Very recently, hostile warring factions would shed arms and take up a ball before retreating to their positions and continuing the fight. Although peacekeeping forces have successfully restored calm to the picture postcard islands, the threat of violence still hangs in the air and police were told to be particularly vigilant after the OFC made the courageous decision to give the islands' passionate supporters the opportunity to view a top-class football competition.
In many ways the Solomon Islands team may well have been victims of their own success. Following on from the senior side's 2-2 draw with Australia in 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying, the team had raced to the final defeating New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu in the semis. There was high expectation that 31 January would be the day when the Solomon Islands make history and etch their name on the world football map.
It was not to be. Although Australia had been forced to bend backwards, needing an 89th-minute winner to defeat Fiji in the semi-finals 3-2, they were not about to be brought to their knees. An eight-minute penalty from Mark Bridge silenced a boisterous crowd, before strikes from Vince Lia (58) and David Williams (74) settled the matter before other events took over.
For a long time it appeared Australia were intent on sending a message to the upstarts that dared to challenge their hegemony in the Oceania region. They raced through Group A, racking up an outrageous, even by their standards, number of goals to boot - 40, in fact, in three matches, including 19 without reply against poor Tonga.
Group B was a far more evenly matched with New Zealand, Fiji and Solomon Islands battling it out for top spot. Fiji surprised a few by beating the Kiwis 1-0, but then lost out to the hosts by the same score. That result gave New Zealand a lifeline but they too were defeated by the slimmest of margins by the home side and, continuing a rather bleak recent trend, flew home earlier than expected.
Despite that surprise few could have predicted the drama of the semi-final clashes. A free kick from Alick Maemae cheered another 20,000 crowd as the Solomon Islands went ahead inside 10 minutes. But Vanuatu bravely fought back and after Jean Emmanuel Caleb equalised they had the best chances to win the match inside 90 minutes. Then, four minutes into extra-time, an own goal by Geoffrey Lego Gete put the Solomon's ahead before Maemae grabbed his second to end Vanuatu dreams.
With their strikers enjoying a bountiful competition in front of goal, champions Australia were in buoyant mood going into the semi-final clash with Fiji. But only a last-gasp free kick from Kristian Sarkies prevented a potentially mighty shock in the South Seas. The Fijians, who had earlier shown their pedigree by defeating New Zealand, twice came back to draw level before the final fateful strike ended hopes for another year.
As the book on the Oceania Youth Championship is closed, frustratingly with part of the final page torn off, the critical reaction will be one of anger and disappointment. But in time it will surely be considered a beginning, a novel with interweaving characters. The chapters written by Fiji, by Vanuatu and by the Solomon Islands having made the product something worth selling.
Group A Results
22/1 Australia 12 New Caledonia 1
22/1 Vanuatu 2 Tonga 0
24/1 Vanuatu 3 New Caledonia 2
25/1 Australia 19 Tonga 0
27/1 Australia 9 Vanuatu 2
27/1 New Caledonia 7 Tonga 1
Group B Results
21/1 Fiji 1 New Zealand 0
21/1 Solomon Islands 6 Samoa 0
23/1 New Zealand 7 Samoa 0
23/1 Solomon Islands 1 Fiji 0
26/1 Fiji 9 Samoa 1
26/1 Solomon Islands 2 New Zealand 1