The four-team Oceania qualifying series for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ resumes on Saturday, with South Pacific Games gold medallists New Caledonia facing Vanuatu in Port Vila.
Although New Zealand have opened up a commanding lead in the group after winning their first three matches, the Caledonians are still very much in the hunt, with four points from two games. After traveling to Port Vila to meet group tailenders Vanuatu, coach Didier Chamberon's men face the same opposition at home in Noumea a week later.
Chamberon, a young coach from the Auvergne region of France, is delighted with his players' self-belief, despite the fact that they have never come close to qualifying for a FIFA World Cup before. "
The players believe it's possible, so we'll try to fulfil this dream
," he said in November.
If recent history is anything to go by, then the two upcoming games between the OFC's two leading Francophone nations should be fiercely contested. The two teams last met in July 2007, in two friendly matches in Noumea; the Caledonians prevailed 5-3 in the opening match, but Vanuatu evened the ledger two days later, defeating their hosts 2-0.
Football in New Caledonia has made great strides of late. Their climb up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in late 2007, thanks mainly to their success at the South Pacific Games, was truly remarkable; they jumped 54 places between July and September, and reached an all-time highest ranking of 114th in April 2008. Inactivity has seen them slide back down to 123rd for the time being, but good results in their upcoming Oceania battles will surely set them on the upward path once more.
The Caledonians' recent Oceania success has not been without its tense moments, however. On the way to the South Pacific Games gold medal, they needed an injury-time strike by Yohann Mercier to get past nine-man Solomon Islands in the semi-final. The Solomons, who reached a playoff with Australia for the right to challenge the fifth nation in South America for a spot at Germany 2006, subsequently lost the third-place playoff to Vanuatu, and with it any hope of taking part in the next FIFA World Cup.
Yet Chamberon's charges, buoyed by their Games triumph, made a bright start to the OFC qualifying campaign; a first-up 3-3 draw away to Fiji was impressive enough, but the Caledonians stormed to a 4-0 win in the return fixture, helped by the return of talismanic midfield general Pierre Wajoka from suspension.
*Memorable match * Wajoka, perhaps the Caledonians' best player, took part in a recent memorable football match in Noumea: a tribute to FIFA World Cup-winning France midfielder Christian Karembeu, who was born in New Caledonia. The presence of players such as Zinedine Zidane, Robert Pires and Youri Djorkaeff on the pitch, as well as Karembeu, gave the occasion a lustre which will surely lend further impetus to the growth of football in the island nation.
Football development in New Caledonia has received a boost from FIFA recently as well; funds provided by the Goal Programme have helped them to build a technical centre in the commune of Paita, located between the airport and the capital Noumea, with both a natural and an artificial turf pitch.