Vanuatans hang on to semi-final hopes

Although Vanuatu may be less revered for its football than for its beautiful beach resorts, this Oceanian archipelago is the only nation to have appeared in two Youth Olympic Football Tournaments.

At the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore four years ago, the Vanuatans not only secured a fifth-place finish but also boasted the best defence behind champions Bolivia, with only four goals conceded in three games played. Under the stewardship of former national team striker Moise Poida, the Oceanians arrived in Nanjing confident of eclipsing their previous campaign by reaching the last four. However, their opening rout at the hands of against Korea Republic brought back all the wrong memories, emulating Haiti's record 9-0 thrashing by Bolivia at the last edition.

Despite seeing his team's semi-final hopes dented by a heavy defeat, Vanuatu captain Ronaldo Wilkins still believes the islanders can outshine their debut showing of four years ago.

"We lost. We prepared but obviously we didn't get the result," midfielder Wilkins told after the game. "Our target now is the next game and we will go out there to win it."

In fact despite slipping up against gold medal favourites Korea Republic, Vanuatu can still realise their semi-final ambition provided that they beat African representatives Cape Verde Islands in their second and last group match on Thursday. "We still have three days to prepare," said Wilkins hopefully, "so we will work hard in training to clinch victory in this crucial game."

Stepping stone to stardom Despite being one of Vanuatu's smaller players at 1m63 tall, Wilkins was arguably the islanders' standout performer in their opener against the South Koreans, creating their best scoring opportunity when he went close with a low rasping shot on nine minutes. However, just one minute later Jeong Wooyeong breached their defences to spark a Korean goal glut.

In hindsight Wilkins feels that the Vanuatan boys may not have been as fully prepared as their well-drilled opponents. "We only had two months to prepare for the Youth Olympics," the promising midfielder explained.

However, for this South Pacific archipelago of 80 islets famed for its tourism and farming, participating in the Youth Olympic Games is itself a source of pride and may well be the stepping stone to greater things. Indeed, many of those who carried the nation's hopes in Singapore four years ago are now the backbone of the Vanuatu national U-19 team.

"Quite a few of the players in that team are very famous and now represent the nation at a higher age group. We're all familiar with them," Wilkins says, before proceeding to reel off the names of the players from the inaugural Games, including twins Michel and Raoul Coulon who played a starring role in that momentous victory over Zimbabwe. "I hope that in future I too can continue to progress and make it into the national team," adds the Vanuatan youngster.

Despite being named after Brazilian World Cup ace Ronaldo, Wilkins admits that his idol is Argentina and Barcelona maestro Lionel Messi. "Everything about Messi fascinates me, his movement, his dribbling, his shooting," said Wilkins.

It remains to be seen whether Vanuatu's midfield fulcrum can emulate his hero and salvage his team's campaign by leading them to victory against the junior Sharks of Cape Verde.