Tight margins among Pacific elite

Oceania nations reached a milestone in preparations for their upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers at the Pacific Games, which was held over the last fortnight in New Caledonia. The 14th edition of the competition included a multitude of sports, with football a key and popular component of the event. Ultimately it was the hosts who prevailed against Solomon Islands in the decider, much to the delight of the Noumea crowd.

Competing in 2011 were eight of the Oceania Football Confederation’s 11 Member Associations, namely American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu. Also featured in the 11-strong field were OFC associate members Kiribati and Tuvalu, plus Guam from the Asian Football Confederation.

Running concurrently was a nine-nation women’s tournament with participants seeking to finetune ahead of next year’s qualifiers for the 2012 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament. New Caledonia endured a contrasting experience to that of their male counterparts in losing the decider to Papua New Guinea. A last-gasp Linah Honeakii penalty gave PNG a 2-1 victory and a third successive crown to confirm their status as the main challenger to New Zealand’s continental supremacy.

Tight margins
The men’s tournament allowed nations to gauge their readiness for their respective Brazil 2014 campaigns. In the case of Pacific Games participants Cook Islands and America Samoa, they, along with Samoa and Tonga, will begin their push to reach the FIFA World Cup this November, with only the victors to progress to the next stage. The pair will undoubtedly have benefitted from the rare opportunity to play international matches, although they won just one match between them. Cook Islands triumphed 3-0 over Kiribati, with Taylor Saghabi grabbing a brace, while American Samoa will take heart from the return to action of acrobatic goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, who first made an impression in national team colours during the Korea/Japan 2002 qualifiers.

As expected, there was little between those nations that next year will take part in Oceania Round 2 qualifying for Brazil 2014, alongside seeded nation New Zealand. Indeed, Group A ended in a three-way tie at the top following five matches across just nine days. New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu claimed a win off each other but an inferior goal difference saw the latter’s hopes in the competition come to an end. The decisive result was New Caledonia’s 5-0 win over Vanuatu with Les Cagous’ striker George Gope-Fenepej putting his name forward as a player to watch with a sparkling hat-trick.

In Group B, it was a slightly different scenario with Fiji winning all four matches to finish five points clear of both Tahiti and Papua New Guinea. The Tahitians edged through to the semi-finals, just two goals clear of their rivals. Though missing out on the top four, PNG, who did not participate in South Africa 2010 qualifying, will be heartened by their competitive displays under former Australia coach Frank Farina.

Hosts shine through
Francophone rivals New Caledonia and Tahiti shaped up in one semi-final with the host nation eventually triumphing 3-1 in extra time. Gope-Fenepej again starred for Les Cagous scoring a brace. The other semi-final followed a similar pattern with Solomon Islands securing a 2-1 win after 120 minutes, with Henry Fa’arodo converting the winner from the penalty spot against a Fiji side shorn of injured star striker Roy Krishna.

Buoyed by a large and colourful crowd at Noumea’s Stade Numa Daly, the New Caledonians raced out of the blocks in the decider to take an early 2-0 lead, and that is how it finished. Goals from Marius Bako and the in-form Gope-Fenepej ensured New Caledonia, who only affiliated to FIFA in 2004, will be high on confidence when they face the continent's elite in Round 2 of FIFA World Cup qualifying.

"The team has to keep working hard because we need to prepare well," said New Caledonia coach Christophe Coursimault of next year’s Brazil 2014 qualifying tournament in Fiji. "We need to meet often to stay focused, and make sure the progress we have made over the last few months does not go to waste."