Historic landmarks highlight Oceanian qualifiers

There have been numerous milestones ticked off in Oceanian football over recent years, and the past fortnight in Vanuatu has seen another achieved. Vanuatu won through to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017, qualifying for their very first FIFA event in the process. New Zealand as winners of the other semi-final in the OFC U-20 Championship will join them in Korea Republic next year.

The very fact that two OFC nations were allocated tickets for the 24-nation event is also noteworthy. It is the first time that two qualification berths have been granted to the continent at this level, and comes on the back of last year’s U-20 World Cup where qualifiers Fiji and host nation New Zealand earned positive results.

A time to celebrate The two-week OFC U-20 Championship will also be remembered as one of the most memorable sporting events to take place in the Melanesian nation. Wild and colourful celebrations greeted Vanuatu’s dramatic injury-time win over Solomon Islands in the otherwise sleepy capital of Port Vila. A dramatic 94th-minute winner from Frederick Massing ensured a 2-1 victory against a Solomon Islands side also seeking to reach a maiden FIFA tournament in any 11-a-side form of the game.

New Zealand claimed the other ticket earlier in the day with a 3-1 win over New Caledonia. And while the Kiwis reached their fourth successive U-20 World Cup, they didn’t have it all their own way as Les Cagous briefly held the lead through Cyril Nyipe’s goal midway through the opening half. However, Moses Dyer soon bagged a quickfire double for the New Zealanders and Reese Cox capped the win with a second-half strike.

Kiwis grab spotlight A massive crowd filled every available corner of the Port Vila stadium for Saturday’s final. And while a pre-match parade celebrated Vanuatu’s historic achievement, it seemed the home team were unable to regather their focus. New Zealand held a two-goal half-time lead, and after semi-final hero Massing was dismissed, the Kiwis added three late goals, including two from Lucas Imrie, for a comprehensive 5-0 triumph and a sixth OFC crown.

“It all came together (in the final) and it was probably the best performance of the tournament,” said New Zealand coach Darren Bazeley, who is now in his fifth year in charge of the team.

New Zealand cleaned up in the individual awards with tournament leading scorer Myer Bevan also named best player, while goalkeeper Michael Woud was deemed the best goalkeeper.

Vanuatu won all four games enroute to the final, conceding just two goals in the process. Their achievements were in part a testament to another New Zealander - former All White Declan Edge who filled the role of technical advisor. “Obviously we were pleased with the performance in the first four games where we were very disciplined,” Edge said. “For some reason that sort of disappeared a little bit (in the final).”

But the headline story came on semi-final day with Vanuatu’s win, a day where emotions and raw passion were evident. “Maybe I’m just grasping what it means to the group now,” Edge said following the semi-final. “There’s grown men that I’ve been working with for the last month crying so it’s obviously pretty emotional.”

Notable too was the tightness of competition. That was particularly the case for Fiji who were unable to follow up their New Zealand 2015 fairytale. A 1-0 loss to Vanuatu and 1-1 draws against New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea put paid to their hopes following a stellar year for the nation. Also significant was the performance of pre-qualifying winners Cook Islands who defied expectations with some highly competitive showings.

Following such an impressive effort from his charges, Bazeley says will be healthy competition for a spot on the plane to Korea Republic mid next year. “There’s a good base of players that aren’t here and everybody does come back into consideration now,” he said. “They’ve got a year to prove that they should be picked. Football never stops and everybody has to continue to develop and be as good a player as they can be.”