On 2 June 2004, at the OFC Nations Cup in Adelaide, the fancied New Zealand side suffered a shock 4-2 defeat at the hands of an island nation which had never before made any great waves in the region. That country was Vanuatu.
Spurred on by that victory, Vanuatu went one better in the 2007 South Pacific Games, held in Apia, Samoa, which doubled as the first phase of OFC qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. By defeating the Solomon Islands in the bronze medal playoff match, Vanuatu qualified for the OFC Nations Cup - which also serves as a four-team play-off for a place in the final AFC qualifying round for the FIFA World Cup.
The star of the show for Vanuatu at the Games was striker Seule Soromon, who hammered home eleven goals at the event, including four in a 15-0 drubbing of American Samoa and two more in the crucial playoff win over the Solomon Islands. Soromon, like many other OFC stars, plays his club football in New Zealand, with Wairarapa United.
Other important contributors for Vanuatu at the Games were experienced captain Etienne Mermer, and young midfield star François Sakama. The team, in part, are helped by a strong bond between the players, as goalkeeper David Chilia explained to FIFA.com last year.
I come from the village of Mele and in the squad we have six players from there and five of us are related
- there is me, Seule, brothers Ken and Fenedy Masauvakalo and Chikau Mansale," he said. "It is no surprise that in this team we have a strong sense of brotherhood."
Their performances in Samoa rocketed Vanuatu up to 131 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, their highest-ever position. Although they have now slipped back to 142, coach Alwin Job's men have shown that they cannot be considered easybeats anymore.
Vanuatu's top club, Tafea FC, have achieved some notable successes in recent times as well, including a sterling performance in the 2007/08 OFC Champions League, in which they narrowly missed out on a place in the final.
With a population of only 200,000, an average life expectancy of 61.7 and an average wage of only US$3,000 per year, Vanuatu could hardly be expected to be a major player in world football. Yet their fortunes have been boosted in recent times by a US$400,000 FIFA Goal Programme grant, which has allowed them to apply an artificial surface to the national stadium in the capital, Port Vila. As a result, the stadium now meets FIFA requirements for international games, and local fans of the national side can now watch their national heroes in action against their Oceania rivals.
Vanuatu's OFC Nations Cup campaign had a hopeful beginning. In their first match, against tournament favourites New Zealand in Port Vila, they took a surprise 32nd minute lead through Jean Naprapol, and maintained their 1-0 lead until half-time. Yet the Kiwis equalized soon after the break through Wellington Phoenix's Shane Smeltz, and then broke Vanuatan hearts with a winner from David Mulligan in the final minute of injury time.
In the return leg, in Welllington, Mulligan was again the Vanuatans' bête noire, scoring twice as New Zealand ran out 4-1 winners.
*Higher stakes * Vanuatu's next opponents in the Nations Cup are South Pacific Games gold medallists New Caledonia, whom they meet at home and away in June. The teams last met in a pair of friendly games last July in Noumea, and the Vanuatans held their own; after going down to a 5-3 defeat in the first match, they recovered to defeat their hosts 2-0 two days later.
Now, the stakes are higher. New Zealand has taken a commanding lead in the four-team event, but the battle between the two leading Francophone OFC members will be intense; New Caledonia have made an impressive start in the Nations Cup, drawing with Fiji away and thrashing the same opposition 4-0 at home, and Vanuatu will need to be at their best to keep the high-scoring New Caledonians quiet.
Vanuatu will also be keen to erase the memories of their poor qualifying campaign for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament, in which they could only defeat the lowly Cook Islands, losing every other game.