Island nations edge closer to Auckland benchmark

It was a case of so near yet so far as Pacific Island nations fell narrowly short in the latest bid to break Auckland City’s continental supremacy which now stretches to four years. Vanuatu’s Amicale were just three minutes shy of forcing extra time in Sunday’s OFC Champions League final when Emiliano Tade netted the winner for the Navy Blues.

New Zealand have claimed eight of the nine continental crows since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation. The Aucklanders are now bound for December’s FIFA Club World Cup where they will make a record-breaking sixth appearance.

This edition of the OFC Champions League was marked by an extra level of inclusiveness with a new high of 15 teams competing, up three from last season. So too, a new format saw the group stage played out in a single venue over an abbreviated period, thus cutting down on expensive and, at times, convoluted journeys.

The journey to Oceania glory commenced way back in October last year with the preliminary stage featuring representatives of four Polynesian nations; American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga. That the opening stage was held in the sleepy American Samoa capital of Pago Pago and ultimately concluded in Auckland - the continent’s biggest metropolis - in somewhat of a metaphor for Oceania’s vastly contrasting football landscape.

Pacific challengers
Auckland have rarely been pushed as hard as they have done over the course of the 2014 campaign. They fell to defeat against Amicale in the group stage, only progressing as the best second-placed side. They suffered another defeat in the semi-final against rejuvenated Tahitians AS Pirae, though winning 4-2 on aggregate.

It was nevertheless a welcome return to the spotlight for Pirae, who in recent years have been forced into the background on the local scene by AS Dragon. Tahiti icon Marama Vahirua played his first domestic season after more than a decade in France’s Ligue 1, and his presence brought extra headlines and interest for the club. Their line-up also featured several heroes from Tahiti’s run to last year’s FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup semi-finals, including striker Naea Bennett whose six goals topped the competition scoring tally alongside Argentinian Tade. Pirae’s impressive form was yet another marker for the narrowing gap between the Pacific challengers and the New Zealanders.

Fiji hosted the group stage in April and home side Ba were the fourth semi-finalist only to be tipped out 2-1 on aggregate by Amicale over 180 tense minutes. Like Pirae, their campaign marked a return to form for Fijian football with the Melanesians once the undisputed kings of the Pacific Islands.

Vanuatu’s moment in the sun
While Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United were famously crowned Oceania’s best four years ago, Amicale could have laid claim to being the first island nation in the Pacific to win the title. Papua New Guinea is Oceania’s most populace nation, and shares an enormous landmass border with Indonesia. Vanuatu in contrast has a population of little more than 200,000. An incredible crowd of nearly 10,000 turned out in Port Vila in one of the biggest football events to take place in the nation formerly known as New Hebrides.

Amicale’s 1-1 draw at home ultimately proved to be an insufficient advantage, but the club can take some solace in becoming the first non-Australian or non-New Zealand club to reach the Champions League final twice.

“Let me pay all credit to Amicale, I think they were a fantastic rival and they would have deserved it,” said Auckland City coach Ramon Tribulietx after the final. “We were the lucky side. We came back in a very difficult game from that goal they scored in the first half but I think the game was very even.”

Credit though again goes to Auckland City who remained consistent despite the loss of several key personnel in recent years. “It has been a difficult season for us,” said Tribulietx. “We’ve lost players at different stages of the season and it’s really hard to get back together and keep doing what we do.”