Solo’s long wait over as history beckons
Solomon Islands face their first Oceania World Cup play-off for 12 years
New Zealand stand in the way of a dream match with a South American side
Star forward Benjamin Totori said it is a “chance to make history”
What chance a world class superstar like Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez or Luis Suarez finds themselves in the Solomon Islands later this year battling for a ticket to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™?
It may seem an unlikely scenario yet just 180 minutes of football will determine which of New Zealand or Solomon Islands will earn the right to represent Oceania in the intercontinental play-off against the fifth-placed South American nation.
New Zealand start as warm favourites when the opening leg kicks-off in Auckland on Friday, ahead of the return in Honiara on Tuesday. But the Solomons have waited 12 years for a match as big as this one, and they intend to make the most of the opportunity.
Back in 2005, a star-studded Australia featuring Viduka, Cahill and Co. visited the Solomons for the Oceania play-off final. Among the crowd that day was a promising young local player harbouring his own dreams of one day featuring on the same stage.
Now Benjamin Totori is a key forward for the Solomon Islands, albeit at the back end of a stellar career. Totori was the first Solomon Islands player to feature at a FIFA Club World Cup and, after a stint at Portland Timbers, the first local to make the big time outside the southern hemisphere.
But that is in the past. The greatest achievement in Solomon Islands football history is now within reach, and it is prolific goalscorer Totori who is front and centre for the team known as the Bonitos.
Football hot-bed in the Pacfic The Melanesian nation is quite simply obsessed with football. Five-figure crowds are common-place at the Lawson Tama Stadium – an extraordinary figure given the population on the main island is around 200,000.
“Every home game is a big thing for us,” Totori told FIFA.com. “Playing in Honiara is always amazing. The Solomons are a football-mad nation, so playing in front of the home crowd is a major honour for us and something we always look forward to. To get a result at home would be a big thing for us.”
Earlier this year the Solomon Islands brought in Spaniard Felipe Vega-Arango as head coach, seeking to find a perfect alchemy of European pragmatism and Melanesian flair.
“The past months under the new coach has been a big difference in terms of training and style of game,” Totori said. “Our confidence leading into this match has grown with each passing day.
"We are focussed more on thinking and training professionally under Felipe. He has confidence in us, and we have confidence in him.
“We have a different style of play to previous years. We are now more mentally fit you could say. We are learning each day to think fast. We have learnt so much under this coach.
“We are just one step away from playing a South American giant so it is going to be a big game for us. There is a big motivation for us. We are ready and focussed.”
No doubt Totori will spend a moment or two this week thinking back to his football fantasies as a teenager all those years ago on Lawson Tama’s steep embankment.
“Age is catching up with me as well, but now I have 180 minutes to make history for myself and the nation,” he said.
“Now after 13 years I’m here (on the field). For me it is time to be a part of history.”