With an unblemished record of FIFA U-17 World Cup qualification since Australia linked with the Asian Football Confederation, New Zealand were understandably optimistic of achieving progress to Chile 2015. In the end they did so for the fifth successive time, but they needed the lottery of penalties to do so as the gap between themselves and the leading Pacific Island nations continues to narrow.
Fiji will enjoy a milestone moment when they feature at this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup hosted by New Zealand, while Tahiti edged the Kiwis out of qualification for the same tournament in 2009. And the Polynesians came within a spot-kick of reprising that feat on Monday as New Zealand won the final 5-4 on penalties after the tournament decider ended 1-1 after 90 minutes.
Had Tahiti won they would have become the first Oceania nation to feature in the U-17 World Cup other than Australia or New Zealand. As it was, the tournament was a rarity given it was held concurrently in two different nations - Samoa and American Samoa – with all 11 Member Associations participating.
*Kiwis work hard for success *
The tournament was played over 14 days, and the New Zealanders had to do it the hard way playing seven games during that period. They won all five matches in Group A including an incredible 5-4 victory over New Caledonia which ultimately proved pivotal in deciding the group winner. The Kiwis then routed Vanuatu 5-1 in the semi-final before edging Tahiti in the final.
Player of the tournament Logan Rogerson netted on the hour mark - his 11th of the tournament – to give the Young Football Ferns the lead in the decider, before Connor Probert missed a penalty four minutes later. However, Tahiti’s Honoarii Kohumoetini hauled the Polynesians level nine minutes from full time. That equaliser merely served to set up the drama of penalties with New Zealand goalkeeper Michael Woud the hero by saving the first spot-kick in what proved the only failure of the ten attempts.
“[There are] probably no nerves left actually,” debutant New Zealand coach Jose Figueira said. “It was an unbelievable game, a roller-coaster game. But ultimately we got the win that our performance probably deserved.
“I think that shows the character of the boys under an immense amount of pressure. We kept our nerve, slotted all five penalties and we’re thankful that Michael came up with a big save first of all.”
*Gap narrowing *
Tahiti lead the charge of nations seeking to break New Zealand’s hegemony in Oceania. Tahitian football is on a high following their appearance at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, and flawless hosting of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup that same year. And now their youngest national team has come within a whisker of reprising their surprise qualification to the FIFA U-20 World Cup six years ago.
The Polynesians were flawless in the group stage, winning all four matches and collecting a stunning 29-goal haul without conceding. However, they needed all their quality and willpower to outlast New Caledonia 3-2 in the Francophone derby and win through to the decider.
“Losing a final by a single penalty shot is very difficult to accept,” said Tahiti coach Ludovic Graugnard, who also hailed the courage of his side. Tahiti goalkeeper Vaiarii Halligan was named the tournament’s best shotstopper.
Co-hosts Samoa gave locals fans something to cheer with a win over Cooks Islands. Further up the standings Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands fell one win shy of winning through to the semi-final stage, with the latter boasting the tournament’s leading goalscorer, Larry Zama.
*Fiji mourns Shalit Muni Reddy
*Sadly, there was a tragic postscript to the tournament, with news emerging that Fiji's Shalit Muni Reddy - a goalscorer in their 5-0 win over the Cook Islands - had died. The player had gone missing while swimming on a team excursion, and news of his passing naturally cast a large shadow.
OFC president David Chung led the tributes, saying: "Shalit had been playing for Fiji U-17 with distinction, he was a prospect that undoubtedly would have had a bright future in the game.
"No words can fully express our grief and dismay at seeing this happen, we can only pass on all our thoughts and prayers to the friends and family of Shalit Muni Reddy and hope they will get some strength from the outpouring of love and support from everyone."
Among those offering support has been the FIFA President, Joseph S. Blatter, who today conveyed his condolences on Twitter.
— Joseph S Blatter (@SeppBlatter) January 28, 2015