After a journey of nearly 18 months on the road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, just one team is left standing among the Oceania Football Confederation’s 11 nations. For the second time in a row, New Zealand claimed top spot in the Pacific to leave themselves just 180 minutes away from booking their ticket to Brazil 2014. It is a far cry from one of New Zealand’s darkest footballing hours, when Solomon Islands edged them out of a top-two continental finish during the Germany 2006 campaign.
A home win over New Caledonia last Friday ensured the All Whites were crowned Oceania kings with a match to spare. However, New Zealand’s passage to the summit was far from straightforward. So too, the end result tells just a small part of the narrative in a campaign which saw ground-breaking achievement for a number of Pacific Island nations, notably Tahiti and American Samoa. FIFA.com looks back at what has been a fascinating chapter in the overall 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying story.
Rare moment in the spotlight
Oceania qualifying for Brazil 2014 commenced in November 2011 in Apia, and the Samoan capital proved to be the unlikely venue for one of the globe’s more momentous footballing moments of the year. Good things, they say, come to those who wait. And for American Samoa the wait must have seemed eternal. Seventeen years, 30 defeats and 299 goals conceded – including a world record 31-0 defeat against Australia in 2001 – was American Samoa’s bare statistics since making their international debut. However, a second-half winner from teenager Shalom Luani – who was just months old at the time of the nation’s international bow – ensured a momentous and hugely celebrated 2-1 win over Tonga.
48 hours later American Samoa came close to repeating the feat, but were forced to make do with a 1-1 draw against Cook Islands. The final day of action in the four-nation tournament saw American Samoa edged 1-0 by neighbours Samoa in a winner-takes-all contest which lifted the hosts into the second stage. The headlines, though, were claimed by American Samoa. Heart-warming too was the decade-long wait for redemption for goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, who was in the firing line during that infamous record-breaking defeat. “The first thing after the game, he looked to me,” said coach Thomas Rongen about Salapu. “He was crying, and said ‘I can now tell my children that I'm a winner’, and that is bigger than the game itself, quite frankly.”
Dreams come true
Dreams of a different kind were realised during last June’s second stage of Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifying. Samoa lined up alongside the seven remaining OFC nations in the Solomon Islands with the tournament doubling as the OFC Nations Cup. The victor would claim progression to the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, while the top four would advance to the third and final stage of Brazil 2014 qualifying. Francophone pair Tahiti and New Caledonia comfortably won through from Group A ahead of Samoa and a youthful Vanuatu. Group B, however, was enormously competitive and featured three draws and three one-goal winning margins across its six matches. New Zealand and the host nation advanced, but Fiji and the fast-developing Papua New Guinea also impressed.
Though the quartet of teams had already booked passage to the third and final stage of Oceania qualifying, the knockout stage was also to provide some major talking points. New Caledonia - affiliated to FIFA only in 2004 - sensationally defeated New Zealand, while Tahiti inflicted a surprise defeat on Solomon Islands in the other semi-final, meaning a Pacific Islands nation would be crowned for the first time in the 39-year history of the continental tournament. Tahiti’s Steevy Chong etched his name into the history books with a first-half winner setting up the amateurs from French Polynesia with a trip to Brazil 2013, and a unique chance to rub shoulders alongside the globe’s elite.
Kiwis to the fore
If Tahiti’s fortnight in Honiara was perfect, the following nine-month period proved to be the opposite. Their five-match winning run turned into a four-match losing streak in the third stage, meaning a sudden end to Toa Aito’s Brazil 2014 ambitions. It was a similar scenario for a transitional Solomon Islands, who - after an opening day win over Tahiti - lost five matches in succession.
The pair’s losing streak left a two-horse race between South Africa 2010 participants New Zealand and the confederation’s newest member, New Caledonia. The New Zealanders went into their penultimate matchday contest with a three-point lead thanks to an earlier 2-0 triumph in Noumea. However, only a win in Dunedin would guarantee the All Whites avoiding a tense last-day finale. The New Zealanders managed to achieve just that, thanks only to a Tommy Smith winner with virtually the last action of the match.
Les Cagous, for their part, enjoyed a best-ever campaign, and in Georges Gope-Fenepej, Bertrand Kai and Cesar Lolohea proved they have one of the continent’s most threatening attacks. New Zealand’s prize for achieving continental success is a two-legged play-off against the fourth-placed CONCACAF nation in November, where Ricki Herbert's men will be hunting successive FIFA World Cup appearances for the first time.