- OFC U-16 finals marked by Solomon Islands’ first World Cup qualification
- New Zealand also earned spot at their ninth U-17 World Cup
- Continental tournament marked by incredible support for hosts
It has been a long time coming but the football-mad Solomon Islands finally have an achievement to truly savour. In their 33rd attempt to qualify for an 11-a-side FIFA tournament, the Melanesian nation finally broke through, by winning passage to the FIFA U-17 World Cup Brazil 2019.
New Zealand will join the Solomons as OFC representatives in South America next year, having displayed impressive resolve to bounce-back from a hefty group-stage defeat and win a seventh straight crown. The Kiwis played out a scoreless draw against Solomon Islands in a gripping final on Saturday before triumphing 5-4 on penalties.
While it is the New Zealanders that added another Oceanian title to a bulging trophy cabinet, it is a tournament that will long be remembered as a milestone moment for the Solomons.
The Melanesians have previously featured with some distinction at FIFA Beach Soccer and Futsal World Cups. They also memorably reached the final of the OFC Nations Cup in 2004 to earn a match-up against an all-star Australia side.
But a ticket to the world stage in the traditional format of the game remained elusive. At least it did until 19 September 2018.
And appropriately enough the achievement came on home soil. Thousands were on hand to witness history, which given the match was played on a Wednesday morning, is ample evidence of the nation's raw fervour for the world game.
Solomon Islands not only qualified for the 24-nation U-17 World Cup, they did so in style. They secured a swashbuckling 5-0 victory over New Zealand to top their group, scoring a total of 15 goals without conceding.
Undoubtedly the headline act was attacker Raphael Le’ai, who is already a star in Futsal circles, and he was ably assisted by Charles Mani. The pair combined for all three goals in the 3-1 semi-final defeat of Fiji that secured passage to the World Cup.
New Zealand, for their part, endured a testing fortnight. They bounced back from their defeat against Solomon Islands – a record loss for a New Zealand side against a Pacific nation at any level – with a crucial 4-3 comeback win over Papua New Guinea.
In comparison, a 4-1 semi-final win over an otherwise highly competitive Tahiti was uncomplicated. The Kiwis then defied the heat, a five-figure crowd and the local forward line in the tournament decider to maintain their hold on the continental title. Hosts of the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup, New Zealand will be featuring in their ninth edition of the tournament next year.
What they said
"We’ve been waiting for this moment. This is the day the country is waiting for – we’re through to the World Cup.” An emotional Solomon Islands coach Stanley Waita.
“A first-ever FIFA World Cup – what a wonderful achievement for this young side of incredibly talented players. The manner in which this team finished their campaign, pushing the seven-time competition winners to the limit, was amazing to witness.” OFC President Lambert Maltock said of the Solomon Islands team.
“This is an incredible place to play football and the boys have learned and gone through so much. To have succeeded at the end of it all is only going to do huge things for us moving forward to the World Cup next year.” New Zealand coach Jose Manuel Figueira.
Winners: New Zealand
Runners-up: Solomon Islands
Semi-finalists: Tahiti, Fiji
Golden Ball: Raphael Le’ai (Solomon Islands)
Golden Boot: Raphael Le’ai (Solomon Islands) – 8 goals
Golden Gloves: Alex Paulsen (New Zealand)