It is difficult to imagine two more contrasting settings than Lifou in New Caledonia and the city of Troyes in north-central France. On the one hand you have the finest sandy shores lapped by aquamarine ocean waves, and on the other, grey asphalt overshadowed by austere buildings.
"Everything’s fine, I’m acclimatising, I'm not too homesick," revealed Georges Gope-Fenepej somewhat surprisingly to FIFA.com after recently joining local side and Ligue 1 newcomers Troyes. "The main difference is on the pitch. The two are worlds apart. Back home in New Caledonia, football is just a pastime, whereas here it’s very fast-paced and it's a job."
Having decided to leave his little corner of paradise to try his luck with the professionals in France, the 23-year-old attacking midfielder transferred to newly-promoted Troyes in June 2012 from New Caledonian amateur club AS Magenta. "Playing in Ligue 1 is a dream, so I came to test myself in France, at Troyes and elsewhere. And Troyes gave me my chance," the burly Kanak goal-getter said on the subject of his move.
Taking the next step
However, there's more to this success story than chance. The man New Caledonian footy fans affectionately call Waddle, in honour of the former Marseille and England winger Chris, bears a number of similarities to his namesake. The most obvious of these are his impressive ball control, left-sided attacking midfield role —although he is right-footed — and scoring prowess, having left the New Caledonia Super Ligue as the top scorer with 13 goals in ten games. Gope-Fenepej also put on a heroic display in the last OFC Nations Cup, held in June in the Solomon Islands, during which New Caledonia proved their mettle by reaching the final before losing 1-0 to Tahiti.
The expectation is growing in our country.
"In his head, he really has great desire to work and succeed," explained Alain Moizan, his former mentor at Magenta and current coach of the Kagus. “In training, he is always at the front, never shying away from exercises. I can’t fault his attitude; a player like him is really easy to train.” And if anyone can provide tips on stepping up to professional level, it’s Moizan. “I also told him that I went from the Division d’Honneur [the sixth tier of the French football league] to the Second Division [Avignon] within the space of a month. It’s all about what’s in your head."
With their jet-heeled midfielder firing on all cylinders, New Caledonia also seem to have raised their game lately and are fast becoming a regional power on a par with Tahiti. It was no coincidence that Gope-Fenepej was on the wing when the Kagus claimed their historic 2-0 triumph over New Zealand in the semi-finals of the Oceanian championship. Gold medallists at the Pacific Games in 2007 and 2011, New Caledonia twice reached the final of the OFC Nations Cup, in 2008 and 2012.
New Zealand, New Caledonia, old rivals
Another sure-fire sign of New Caledonia’s progress is that, other than New Zealand, they are the only Oceanian side to have reached the final qualifying round for the FIFA World Cup twice in a row. Ironically, the pair will meet again in their first match during the third round of Oceanian Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014 on Friday 7 September.
"Winning the OFC Cup definitely bodes well ahead of the upcoming qualifier, because we hadn’t beaten New Zealand for 36 years. But for me, the real coup would be to pull off a repeat performance," quipped Gope-Fenepej, scorer of the second goal in that sensational victory over the Kiwis. "We’re confident going into this game, and sure of our strengths: togetherness and solidarity. The All Whites are obviously still our number-one rivals in Oceania, they’re pros. But their supremacy is starting to come under serious threat."
As well as facing the New Zealanders, New Caledonia will take on Solomon Islands and Tahiti home and away between September 2012 and March 2013. The winner of the group will face the fourth-placed team in the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying tournament, with a ticket to Brazil up for grabs. "I firmly believe in our chances of qualifying," concludes Gope-Fenepej, "and I'm not the only one. The expectation is growing in our country and I think there will be some noise at the Numa-Daly stadium!"
Fired up by their fans and with Georges Gope-Fenepej fuelling their ambition, New Caledonia are ready to reach new heights.