Amidst the media frenzy surrounding the build-up to the imminent Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine, the other side of the globe has seen Oceania’s premier international competition quietly get underway. The competitors expect nothing more – teams from the region’s confederation only seem to make the headlines once in a blue moon: European media has abandoned Oceania since reporting perennial minnows American Samoa’s first-ever victory in November of last year. It appears the only way to attract attention from the West is by being hilariously awful for most of your footballing history, before providing media outlets with the perfect underdog story by somehow mustering the firepower to record a rare triumph.
The OFC Nations Cup, Oceania’s equivalent of the Euros, has seen some remarkable stories since its beginning three days ago. With a place at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil and progression to a World Cup qualification play-off at stake, all eight competitors have their eyes on the prize. Honiara, Solomon Islands – the host venue of the tournament – has impressed with both the enthusiasm of locals and the ability of the Lawson Tama Stadium, which will host every game, to cope with two matches every day.
Although favourites New Zealand have won both of their opening games, albeit narrowly, their poor performances in the merciless heat of the Solomons has fuelled neutral hopes that another nation can triumph this time around. Every previous edition of this tournament has seen either the All Whites or Australia (now competing in the Asian confederation) emerge victorious.
This year, however, New Zealand have struggled to a 1-0 win over fellow Group B heavyweights Fiji – considered to be second to New Zealand in the Oceanian rankings – in their opening game, thanks to an early goal from Ipswich Town defender Tommy Smith. This close game represents a stark contrast to the same fixture 30 years ago, when the Fijians were destroyed 13-0 in what remains New Zealand’s biggest-ever victory.
The favourites failed to improve in the second group game: a similarly uncomfortable 2-1 victory against an unfancied Papua New Guinea team has left the rest of the tourament’s teams sniffing a potential upset. New Zealand are the only Oceania nation capable of fielding numerous Europe-based players – Papua New Guinea’s closest equivalent, former Serie A triallist Nathaniel Lepani was not even included in his country’s 30-man squad.
Against PNG, New Zealand relied on goals from 2010 World Cup veteran Shane Smeltz and West Bromwich Albion forward Chris Wood to see them through, even conceding a (slightly dubious) late penalty for Tony Lochhead’s handball. Papua New Guinea’s squad is comprised solely of Oceania-based players, with the furthest-flung inclusions only plying their trade in New Zealand or the Australian lower leagues; the All Whites boast Premier League talent, Papua New Guinea have Brisbane Premier League stars. NZ coach Ricki Herbert did his best to hide his disappointment, saying “It was just about getting through this one – it was 39 degrees pitchside today.” The heat has arguably reduced New Zealand’s ability to simply outclass their opponents, resulting in gritty, determined performances replacing previous edition’s comfortable wins where the team was able to simply stroll to victory.
By selecting the environmentally-challenging Solomon Islands (for the NZ players, anyway), the Oceania Football Confederation appears to have finally found a way to create a relatively level playing field at its championships. The defection of Australia to Asia in 2006, citing Oceania’s restricting lack of competitiveness, had lead to competitions becoming even more one-sided: whereas previous spoils had been shared between Australia and New Zealand, the removal of the All Whites’ closest neighbours and rivals resulted in NZ starting tournaments as overwhelming favourites, miles ahead of their opponents in quality and preparation.
As Nathaniel Lepani told me last week, “On the face of it, New Zealand should just turn up at the tournament and walk away winners, such is the quality of their team of near fulltime professionals, compared to the majority of “amateurs” who make up the rest of the Pacific countries. But having the tournament hosted out of their comfort zone, always means the Kiwis are going to have to work for their win.” The difficult conditions in Honiara mean games between “New Zealand and the rest” will be more open, competitive and entertaining.
Group A, meanwhile, has been dominated by an impressive Tahitian side that has taken maximum points from its opening two fixtures, including a 10-1 thrashing of tournament whipping-boys Samoa. With Vanuatu and New Caledonia hot on Tahiti’s heels and battling for second place, the final group fixtures over the next two days should provide plenty of drama and entertainment. Group A has also witnessed the Cup’s most exciting clash so far in the form of Tahiti’s thrilling 4-3 triumph over the nine-man New Caledonians. 3-0 and two men down, with less than 15 minutes remaining, New Caledonia launched an admirable fightback that was only ended by an 87th minute settler from Tahiti’s Roihau Degage. A perfect advert for Oceania football, this game had it all: penalties, red cards, handballs inside the box and late, late goals.
The Solomon Islands retain hope of progressing to the semi-finals, and are currently edging a disappointing Fiji team that has yielded just one point despite boasting talents such as Waitakere United’s Roy Krishna, hailed as “the best player in the [NZFC] league” by Oceania media.
Despite their struggles, New Zealand will remain the favourites to lift the Nations Cup and take another step towards qualification for the 2014 World Cup. However, the lack of national media coverage of events in Honiara – the NZ Herald failed to even include details of the tournament in its “Sports” section, preferring analysis of Maria Sharapova’s performance in the French Open – means that the country’s arrogance, confidence of victory, and apparent lack of concern over recent shortcomings leaves neutrals rooting for the underdogs even more. For the first time ever, a Nations Cup competition could be won by someone other than Australia and New Zealand.