Oceania’s lengthy 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ campaign is underway, with Samoa and Cook Islands opening with wins over American Samoa and hosts Tonga respectively in the four-nation Stage 1 matches.
The latter result was particularly notable as Cook Islands secured a maiden FIFA World Cup victory in their sixth campaign. Cook Islands turned in a confident display to score three times in a 22-minute period either side of the half-time break, with Taylor Saghabi netting all three goals to become the scorer of his nation’s first World Cup hat-trick.
It could have been even more pain for Tonga as Paavo Mustonen cracked a free-kick against the woodwork just after half-time. But despite Cook Islands’ impressive showing, Tonga were unlucky not to at least secure a consolation goal at Nuku’Alofa’s palm-tree lined Loto-Tonga Soka Centre.
The well-organised Cook Islands were a constant threat from set-pieces, while Tonga captain Mark Uhatahi spurned the home side’s best opening in the latter stages with only the keeper to beat.
The match was also a milestone moment for Tonga, who played their first home FIFA World Cup match for 19 years, and the first at their Goal Programme-funded home of football since its opening in 2001.
The second match proved a lively and spirited contest with a real derby feel as two neighbours shaped up.
The pair had fought out a tight final-day battle for first spot four years ago, but the early stages of this contest looked mismatched with American Samoa struggling to settle. Samoa raced to a 3-0 lead, but were forced to survive a tense finale as American Samoa pulled back to 3-2 on the back of a Demetrius Beauchamp double.
Evergreen Samoa star attacker Desmond Faaiuaso scored after just four minutes, while defender Faitalia Hamilton-Pama soon netted with a header to double the advantage. It was three almost immediately as Andrew Mobberley coolly slotted home, after a pacy run from Faaiuaso.
It could easily have been four on several occasions, but instead tall forward Beauchamp pulled a goal back before the break. And the contest swung further in the direction of American Samoa soon after the interval with Samoa’s Lapalapa Toni sent off for a foul.
Beauchamp set up a chaotic and tense finale with his second of the match four minutes from the end, as the USA-based frontman craftily netted. “If I had two halves like the second then I think the game would have been a lot closer,” said American Samoa coach Larry Mana’o. “My expectations were met in the second half, not the first.”
Wednesday’s second matchday could go a long way towards deciding the identity of the group winner and passage to Stage 2, with Cook Islands to meet Samoa.