Cook Islands keep hopes alive amid late drama

Cook Islands have kept their FIFA U-17 World Cup hopes alive by winning the four-nation preliminary stage of qualifying in Apia, Samoa.

An exciting and emotionally charged final day of action at J.S. Blatter Football Complex saw Cook Islands sneak over the line with American Samoa losing their grip on top spot in the final minutes.

Going into the finale, three sides, including Samoa, still had a realistic chance of taking the title and that remained the case until the dying minutes of both matches, with both played simultaneously.

However, it was the Cook Islanders who held their nerve, defeating Samoa 2-1 as American Samoa lost their grip on the trophy with a last-gasp 3-2 loss against Tonga.

In spite of their favouritism, it has been a far-from-straightforward path to the title for the champions though and it looked like it would be American Samoa with their name on the trophy as late as just a few minutes out from the final whistles. At that point, Cook Islands were locked at 1-1 with hosts Samoa and proceedings were going largely to plan for American Samoa, who were on course for the win they needed at 2-1 up over Tonga.

But the tournament was to take a dramatic turn in the seconds that followed as Dwayne Tiputoa burst forward to slot home a late winner for Cook Islands at virtually the same moment Hemaloto Polovili was equalising for Tonga on the other field. That pair of strikes meant the title was now going the way of Cook Islands unless American Samoa could snatch a late winner, but instead it was Tonga that pounced to emerge victorious, Taniela Vaka’uta finding the net in injury time to give coach Timote Moleni and his charges their first win of the tournament.

American Samoa midfielder Kaleopa Siligi was named player of the tournament, while Cook Islands custodian Keegan Inia earned the golden gloves as the best goalkeeper on show. Polovili and Tua shared the golden boot after both ending on four strikes, while Tonga received the Fair Play Award.

The win means Cook Islands have qualified for the OFC U-17 Championship, which is set to take place in Vanuatu from April 17-27, where they will come up against fellow Oceania nations Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu.

The winner will go on to represent the region at the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013.