History-makers Fiji clinch U-20 spot

Fiji have made history by qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, with the Melanesians now set to feature in a FIFA tournament for the first time.

It is only the second time that Oceania will be represented at the tournament by a team other than New Zealand - hosts of the 2015 edition - and former OFC members Australia. Now, the Fijians are set to continue on a trail first blazed by Tahiti in 2009 after emerging triumphant from the six-team, round robin OFC U-20 Championship.

Their place at next year's finals, along with OFC trophy, was secured with a comeback win over Solomon Islands in the final match on the final day of a pulsating tournament. Fiji, as hosts, were always expected to be strong contenders for the continent's solitary berth at New Zealand 2015, but were pushed all the way by a valiant Vanuatu team.

The Vanuatuans, who ended the tournament unbeaten, had kept their hopes alive first by drawing 2-2 with Fiji on Thursday and then earlier today with a 4-2 victory over Papua New Guinea in their concluding fixture. That heaped the pressure on Fiji, who knew that only a defeat against the Solomons in Suva would deny them the title.

A defeat, though, was exactly what they were left facing after nine minutes when tournament top scorer Atkin Kaua drilled an unstoppable shot into the bottom-left corner from the edge of the box to stun the home support. Fiji had paid the price for a cautious and nervy start to the match, but their character began to shine through as the first half wore on and they grabbed a scrappy equaliser 15 minutes later.

This is a victory I want to dedicate to all the coaches and teachers who have done so much to develop Fijian football over the past 60, 70 years.
Fiji coach Ravinesh Kumar

Nickel Chand was the player to profit from a spillage from the otherwise excelled Phillip Mango, slotting into the partially guarded net and calming a few Fijian jitters in the process. And the pendulum swung yet further towards the hosts just a couple of minutes later when Praneel Naidu curled an inch-perfect free-kick over the wall and beyond Mango's despairing dive.

Fiji rarely looked in danger thereafter, and could have moved out of sight but for Mango denying the dangerous Samuel Nabenia. For coach Ravinesh Kumar, whose side finished runners-up to New Zealand in the same competition last year, there was only cause to be grateful as he reflected on his team's achievement.

He said: "I'd like to thank the players for their hard work, they have sacrificed a lot over the last six months, and to thank their parents for allowing the boys to spend so much time in camp. I must also thank everyone who has placed their trust in this management team. This is a victory I want to dedicate to all the coaches and teachers who have done so much to develop Fijian football over the past 60, 70 years."

Fiji's continued development should be aided considerably by their youngsters' experiences among the world elite next year, with Tahiti's senior team already having benefited from the adventures of their U-20 stars in 2009.

And while Kumar's side were the big winners, and deserved champions, in this excellent OFC tournament, there was plenty of encouragement to be drawn elsewhere. Etienne Mermer's Vanuatu showed that they will be a force to be reckoned with at future continental events and, as well as emerging unbeaten, had the tournament's outstanding player in Golden Ball winner Jacky Ruben.

New Caledonia could also reflect with great pride on having finished third, winning three of their five matches, while there was plenty of good football produced by the Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands sides coached by regional legends Wynton Rufer and Commins Menapi respectively. All will depart with Fiji with reasons to cheerful, but it is their hosts who will spend the next year looking forward to an appearance on the world stage.

Final ranking
Fiji (13 points), Vanuatu (11), New Caledonia (9), Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea (both 4), American Samoa (1)

Golden Ball award
Jacky Ruben, Vanuatu

Golden Boot award
Atkin Kaua, Solomon Islands (5 goals)

Golden Glove award
Misiwani Nairube, Fiji

Fair Play award
Solomon Islands