Though no Oceania teams reached the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the qualifying campaign saw a host of new milestones and achievements created that will live long in the memory. New Zealand’s failure to progress to the world-stage as Oceania representatives in the intercontinental play-off may seem a lack of progress for the region but dig a little deeper and it is clear there were a series of breakthrough achievements. Most notable, was Tahiti who won the second stage of qualifying which doubled as the Oceania Nations Cup; a maiden title for a Pacific Islands nation. There were also significant milestones for American Samoa, New Caledonia and others. FIFA.com looks back at a four-stage qualifying journey which lasted almost exactly two years to the day.
The qualified teams
None (New Zealand lost the intercontinental play-off to Mexico 9-3 on agg)
Five memorable moments
*Good things come to those that wait
* Seventeen years, 30 defeats and 299 goals conceded – including a world record 31-0 defeat against Australia in 2001 – were American Samoa’s bare statistics since making their international debut. However, they enjoyed a momentous moment on the very first day of Oceania qualifying in November 2011 with a second-half winner from teenager Shalom Luani ensuring a momentous and hugely celebrated 2-1 win over Tonga. It was also redemption of sorts for goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, who was in the firing line during that infamous record-breaking defeat. Needing a win in the final group game, American Samoa hit the post in the dying moments only for Samoa to break upfield for a 2-1 victory to earn the only ticket into Stage 2.
*Young coach leads the way
*Tonga were guided by possibly the youngest coach ever to lead a team into FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. 25-year-old Australian Chris Williams was not only making his international coaching bow, but he was in fact debuting as a senior coach when he oversaw the Polynesians in Stage 1 qualifying. Quirkily, some of the Tonga players were older than Williams, most notably 38-year-old Lokoua Taufahema, a veteran of the France 1998 qualifying campaign.
*Polynesians’ time to shine in the sun
*Honiara’s sun-baked Lawson Tama stadium in the Solomon Islands capital provided the stage for a landmark moment in the confederation’s history. June 2011 saw Tahiti top the eight-nation Stage 2 to be crowned Pacific kingfishers with the tournament doubling as the continental championship. Tahiti knocked over the host nation in the semi-final before dispensing with Francophone rivals New Caledonia, conquerors of New Zealand. Never before had there been a winner other than New Zealand or former OFC member Australia, as Tahiti earned passage to the FIFA Confederations Cup.
*The rise and rise of New Caledonia *
Though one of FIFA’s newest members, having joined the global football family nine years ago, the French-speaking Pacific nation of New Caledonia has a rich and vibrant football history dating back to the first half of last century. In 2012 they reached a second successive Oceania Nations Cup final and, but for the bounce of the ball in a knife-edge contest, it could easily have been New Caledonia representing the continent at the Festival of Champions in Brazil earlier this year. *Les Cagous *enjoyed a best-ever campaign and in Stage 3 they finished well clear of Tahiti and Solomons, and remained in the hunt for the intercontinental play-off berth until the penultimate game.
*Dig the new breed
*New Zealand fans will lament their failure to reprise World Cup qualification heroics from four years ago. The All Whites hefty aggregate defeat should not, however, mask the growth the team has made in four years, as evidenced by a wave of dynamic new players. New Zealand have long been blessed with an abundance of strong athletic players, but now in the likes of twinkle-toed duo Marco Rojas and Kosta Barbarouses, plus the technically proficient goalscoring of Jeremy Brockie, the All Whites boast a cross-section of attacking options like never before.
*Three players to watch
*Georges Gope-Fenepej (New Caledonia) – The burly forward or attacking midfielder came to the fore in Stage 2 qualifying and took his side to within a whisker of continental glory. He picked up a move to Troyes featuring, albeit fleetingly, in France’s Ligue 1 before the club were relegated this year. Gope-Fenepej combined with the likes of Bertrand Kai and Cesar Lolohea to give New Caledonia one of the continent’s most threatening attacks. Eight goals saw the 25-year-old earn himself a small slice of history as the continent’s top scorer in Brazil 2014 qualifying.
Steevy Chong Hue (Tahiti) – Rarely has the continent witnessed a more pivotal goal that that delivered by Chong Hue in the early minutes of the Stage 2 final against New Caledonia. It proved to be the winner and sent Tahiti to the FIFA Confederations Cup and a dream-like opportunity to mix with the world’s best footballers. Hailing from one of the more remote locations on earth – the island of Raiatea located a couple of hundred kilometres from the main French Polynesian landmass – Chong Hue is blessed with searing pace and a nose for goal.
Marco Rojas (New Zealand) – The diminutive Wellington-born, Chilean-heritage Rojas has both pace and innate technical ability. After earning the A-League player of the year at the age of just 21, he become one of New Zealand’s few players in a top European league with a move to German Bundesliga outfit Stuttgart earlier this year.
*What they said
*“He was crying, and said ‘I can now tell my children that I'm a winner’, and that is bigger than the game itself quite frankly.” American Samoa coach Thomas Rongen about Nicky Salapu who finally enjoyed the sweet taste of success having been in goal when his team suffered a world record defeat in 2001.
"I'm going to wake up in the morning thinking the game is in a very healthy position. I go out with my head high and very, very proud." Outgoing New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert.
* *36 – New Caledonia were easily the continent’s top goalscorers with their 36 goals leaving them eight clear of New Zealand (including their play-off matches).
*The top scorers
*Georges Gope-Fenepej (8 goals), Jacques Haeko, Chris Wood (both 7)