Category: Solomon Islands

The sixth and final round of the 2014 Oceania region World Cup qualifying group ended on Tuesday with New Zealand completing a perfect qualifying campaign, winning all six games, while second-placed New Caledonia recorded a 1-0 win over Tahiti. After beating the Solomon Islands 2-0 in their final group game, New Zealand will face the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF region in an inter-continental play-off in November for a place at the World Cup proper.

Solomon Islands 0

New Zealand 2 (Payne 3,88)

Their place in the inter-continental play-off already confirmed, New Zealand boss Ricki Herbert opted to send the majority of his first-team squad back to their clubs, travelling to the Solomon Islands with a team largely made up of fringe players. With the Solomons also fielding a much-changed line-up – only captain Henry Fa’arodo and winger Benjamin Totori survived from the 2-0 loss to Tahiti four days earlier – it was destined to be a stop-start game with both sets of players unfamiliar with their team-mates.

It was Blackburn Rovers striker Tim Payne who did the most to impress Ricki Herbert, opening the scoring on three minutes from fully 25 yards. Employed “in the hole” behind the main striker, Payne would prove to be a thorn in the Solomons’ side throughout, and will surely be rewarded for this lively display with more senior call-ups in the future.

Tim Payne boosted his chances of international football with a brace

Fa’arodo provided the home side’s biggest threat, and after two free-kicks had earlier sailed over the crossbar, the midfielder managed to force Jacob Spoonley into a fine stop on 22 minutes. The strike led to a spell of increased pressure by the Bonitos, but their momentum was halted by an enforced water break as Tahitian referee Averii Jacques acknowledged the searing heat in Honiara.

New Zealand looked the sharper side after the water break, and Kosta Barbarouses came within a whisker of doubling the All Blacks’ lead when his effort grazed the crossbar just before half-time. Looking for only their second win in the group stage, the Solomons took the game to their visitors in the second half but were frustrated by a stubborn New Zealand defence showing why it has conceded just two goals in the six games.

And it was the All Blacks who had the last laugh as Payne grabbed his second of the game with just two minutes of normal time remaining, pouncing to score after Barbarouses’ shot had been blocked. Solomons coach Jacob Moli has work to do, and will quickly need to establish who his best starting XI are; his team finished bottom of the group on goal difference, conceding an average of over three goals per game.

The performances of Payne and other fringe players will have given Ricki Herbert some pleasant selection headaches ahead of the play-off in November, but it was the inclusion of one player, defender Andrew Durante, which attracted particular attention from the media. Centre-back Durante, Australian by birth, became a naturalized New Zealand citizen at the start of this month and was included in the squad for the games against New Caledonia and Solomon Islands.

With New Zealand failing to receive official confirmation from FIFA that Durante was eligible to play, Herbert understandably chose not to field Durante against New Caledonia on 22 March, but with FIFA still playing hard to get, the coach handed Durante a debut in the hope that his selection would provoke a FIFA inquiry that would accelerate their eligibility confirmation.

New Zealand would actually encourage either the Solomons or the Oceania Football Confederation questioning Durante’s eligibility in order to get the matter deferred to FIFA – as the All Blacks’ performance manager Fred de Jong says, “It’s a waiting game for us. We are waiting to see if anything has come out of the game that would instigate an investigation into Durante’s eligibility.”

New Caledonia 1 (Lolohea 85)

Tahiti 0

New Caledonia ended a fine qualifying campaign on a high after recording a narrow win over Tahiti. Les Cagous took maximum points from their fixtures against Tahiti and the Solomon Islands, but their failure to take anything from their games against New Zealand cost them in the race to finish at the top of the group.

The first half followed the form-book, with the dominant hosts only denied by a combination of wasteful finishing and good goalkeeping by Tahiti captain Xavier Samin. Aided by a triple substitution early in the second half, New Caledonia continued their pressure after the break, while Tahiti struggled to create any clear-cut chances.

Tahiti’s Stanley Atani (left) battles for the ball

Just as the game looked like ending goalless – and therefore being, incredibly, the only draw of the entire group stage – New Caledonia finally made their dominance count with five minutes left on the clock. Cesar Lolohea’s volley ensured all three points stayed in Noumea, and that Tahiti were eliminated from the qualification process with just a solitary win to their name.

With Tahiti also having been soundly beaten 4-0 by Australian A-League side FC Sydney in February, Eddie Etaeta’s men look destined to be on the end of some heavy defeats in their 2013 Confederations Cup group later this year – which also includes world champions Spain, as well as star-studded Uruguay and Nigeria teams.

New Zealand guaranteed their position at the top of the group for 2014 World Cup qualification, and in doing so booked their place for a play-off against the fourth-placed team from the CONCACAF region. Their opponents, New Caledonia, were subsequently eliminated from the qualification process, as were group stage strugglers Tahiti and the Solomon Islands, who also faced off in the group stage’s penultimate round of fixtures this weekend.

New Zealand (Killen 10, Smith 90+4)

New Caledonia 1 (Lolohea 56)

Regional heavyweights New Zealand ended plucky New Caledonia’s challenge for the group stage title with a dramatic 2-1 win in Dunedin. Second-placed New Caledonia needed a win to keep their chances of reaching Brazil alive, and battled admirably being cruelly denied an admirable draw when Tommy Smith headed the hosts into an inter-continental play-off in the fourth minute of injury time.

Both sides had chances in the opening stages of the game, but it was New Zealand who struck first when ex-Celtic striker Chris Killen converted Leo Bertos’ 10th-minute corner. The early goal changed the dynamic of the game, with New Caledonia now forced to come out of their shell in order to stand any chance of grabbing the three points they needed.

New Zealand’s Tommy Smith (right) celebrates his last-gasp winner

Sure enough, Les Cagous upped the tempo, with attackers Georges Gope-Fenepej (the tournament’s top scorer), Cesar Lolohea and Bertrand Kai all looking dangerous, but on 26 minutes it was New Zealand who almost grabbed a second goal. Once more, a set-piece proved New Caledonia’s undoing, as Marco Rojas’ free-kick was met by a thundering Tommy Smith header, but the Ipswich defender’s effort bounced back off the crossbar.

The remainder of the first half progressed in end-to-end fashion; few clear chances were created, but, as half-time loomed on the horizon, Smith hit the bar for the second time in 20 minutes. A frantic goalmouth scramble in the visitors’ box ended with the centre-back toeing the ball onto the bar from close range, and New Caledonia survived until half-time with just the one goal conceded.

Les Cagous duly regrouped during the interval, and coach Alain Moizan’s team-talk had an almost immediate effect: just ten minutes of the second half had elapsed when Lolohea expertly controlled a Bertrand Kai cross on his chest before firing beyond Mark Paston, silencing the watching Kiwis in the stands.

Further goals proved elusive for both sides, and New Caledonia survived a scare in the last minute of normal time when Shane Smeltz’s penalty appeals were waved away by Australian referee Strebre Delovski, but the All Blacks were not to be denied. Just seconds remained when Smith made it third time lucky by reacting quickest to a loose ball and looping a header over visiting keeper Rocky Nyikeine.

New Zealand will be relieved to have avoided needing a result in the final game to confirm their group-stage win, but New Caledonia pushed them all the way and that is encouraging for the future of Oceanic football.


Tahiti 2 (Bourebare 28, Vallar 82)

Solomon Islands 0

Tahiti finally claimed their first group-stage victory at the fifth attempt, with a 2-0 win over fellow strugglers Solomon Islands. They were helped by Solomons player-coach Henry Fa’arodo naming a much-changed starting line-up – just Fa’arodo (obviously!) and Benjamin Totori survived from their last game, a 5-0 loss to New Caledonia.

Solomons’ player-coach Totori (green) tries to lead by example

The hosts began the game strongly, and it was little surprise when they opened the scoring midway through the first half when Donovan Bourebare crashed home a free-kick. Totori came closest to restoring parity for the Solomons, but Tahiti ensured their lead lasted until half-time.

The second half was disrupted by a string of yellow cards and substitutions for both teams, but it was Tahiti who came closer to scoring again. Steevy Chong Hue’s center was met by Yannick Vero, but the forward was brilliantly denied by Solomons custodian Sammy Osso. However, Tahiti sealed a deserved win eight minutes from time as skipper Nicolas Vallar beat Osso from range.

The two sides are now tied on three points with one match remaining, cast well adrift of New Caledonia and champions New Zealand. Tahiti will be reassured by a return to winning ways after their four-match losing streak, especially with the Confederations Cup in Brazil looming later this year. Solomons’ player-coach Totori has a lot of work to do on this showing if he is to turn his nation into genuine regional contenders, and his radical team selection may require several more matches to gel.

The Oceania region’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign will end next week, with the final group stage games on 22 and 26 of March determining who will represent the Oceania Football Confederation in a play-off against the fourth-placed CONCACAF nation for a spot in the tournament proper in Brazil next year.

Predictably, regional heavyweights New Zealand top the table after four games, having won every match so far, and only second-placed New Caledonia can still qualify for the inter-confederation play-off by topping the group ahead of the Kiwis. Naturally, then, all eyes will be on these two teams’ decisive clash on 22 March at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium; win and New Zealand guarantee their progress to the play-off, lose and they and New Caledonia will enter the last game on 26 March level on points.

All smiles: Gope-Fenepej has fired New Caledonia into second place

The group’s other contestants, Tahiti and Solomon Islands, have endured torrid qualifying campaigns – 2012 OFC Nations Cup winners Tahiti (who will be representing Oceania at this year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil) have lost every game, failing even to score once in the process. Seeing as this goal-shyness has been matched by an equally poor defensive record of  11 goals conceded in those four games, Tahiti could be in for some heavy defeats in Brazil if things fail to improve. Although the Solomon Islands do have one win to their name -against the hapless Tahitians, obviously – they have shipped even more goals, being drubbed 6-1 by New Zealand and 6-2 by New Caledonia.

New Caledonia’s unprecedented success has been largely thanks to the goals of Georges Gope-Fenepej, who has a record of almost a goal per game at international level since making his debut in August 2011. Gope-Fenepej netted a hat-trick in that 6-2 demolition of the Solomons, and with six goals in total he is by far the tournament’s leading scorer.  It’s unsurprising, then, that top-flight French side Troyes took a gamble on the frontman in 2012, and although Gope-Fenepej has only made one first-team appearance in his first season at the club, he has bagged three goals in nine games for Troyes’ reserve team. The 24-year-old’s impressive transfer will give hope to his compatriots and other players from a region whose stars rarely make it outside Australia and New Zealand.

New Caledonia legend Charles Teamboueon, who passed away last week

However, Les Cagous’ recent positive performances on-field have been somewhat overshadowed by the death last week of one of the best players the country has ever produced, Charles Teamboueon, who passed away at the age of 73. Teamboueon broke the mould by earning a call-up to the New Caledonia national team in 1965 despite playing in the national second division. As the man himself said, “That posed a few problems because at the time the national team was composed only of players from the first division.” However, Teamboueon emphatically justified his selection by scoring four times on his debut against German giants Stuttgart, inspiring his country to a 5-1 win.

Teamboueon opted to move to France in 1966, and within two years he had been selected for France’s national amateur team, reaching the quarter-finals of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. He retired in 1972 through injury, but was still managing New Caledonian side AS Mont-Dore as recently as 2007, guiding the club to a national Cup win that year.

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.

The understated media presence – just two tournament commentators/analysts/presenters – provides a welcome, relaxed alternative build-up to an international tournament

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.

Tahiti receive a warm welcome from the enthusiastic locals upon touchdown in Honiara

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.

New Zealand will face increased competition this time around, as neutrals hope to see a new team celebrating come final day

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.

After experiencing the delight of their first ever official win in November 2011, American Samoa must have entered the 2012 London Olympic qualifiers with high hopes and increased confidence. After a run of 30 consecutive defeats, the minnows had beaten Tonga and matched the Cook Islands in a 1-1 draw. The players could have been forgiven for thinking that their days of suffering the humiliation of double-figure thrashings and enduring four-year goal droughts were over.

Unfortunately not. Although American Samoa’s under-23 team, which would compete in the qualifiers, has enjoyed less success and practice than the senior side, American Samoans would still have been confident that progress would continue. Drawn in a group containing regional heavyweights Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, American Samoa had the chance to prove their development into a competitive nation in the Oceania confederation.

This optimism would have been lessened, but not eradicated, by the half-time score-line in the team’s opening game against Vanuatu. 4-0 down after just 23 minutes, American Samoa recovered to match their stronger opponents for the remainder of the half. Samoans would not have been shocked to find their team trailing heavily but would have hoped for a goalless second half that would have underlined the side’s progress.

Even the attentions of two defenders can’t prevent Vanuatu’s Sailas Namatak from claiming a hat-trick

American Samoa almost did just that – had the match only lasted 80 minutes rather than 90, 4-0 would have been the respectable result. However, the side tired and their resistance was emphatically ended with 4 goals in the last nine minutes. The result was disappointing but not unexpected. The Blues now needed to pick themselves up and fast – the next game, against Fiji, was scheduled in just two days time.

The Fiji match bore some similarities to their encounter with Vanuatu. Again, American Samoa conceded early on, but this time they held out until half-time for an incredible 1-0 score-line. A narrow defeat to arguably Oceania’s best country after New Zealand would have ranked among American Samoa’s best achievements on the world stage, but again, it was not to be. Six second-half Fiji goals, interrupted only by an Ailoa Tualaulelei consolation to bring it back to 5-1, again left the Samoans demoralized and defeated. Make no doubt about it, this Fiji team was talented – they would go on to reach the final, only losing 1-0 to clear favourites New Zealand.

So it was with low expectation and confidence that the Samoan players would have entered their final fixture, against the Solomon Islands on 21 March. However, they would probably have expected a closer game than their last two matches – Solomon Islands had also lost both of their games, albeit by only one or two goals as opposed to American Samoa’s six or eight. Both teams were already eliminated and optimistic Samoans may have hoped to encounter an unmotivated, low-on-belief Solomon team that was there for the taking.

American Samoa captain Jr Amisone tries in vain to stop New Zealand-based Jerry Donga

What followed was American Samoa’s worst result since August 2007. A return to the dark days of double-figure hammerings loomed large on the horizon as the minnows were blown away by a surprisingly determined Solomon team. Five minutes in, and one goal to the good thanks to Shalom Luani’s strike, Samoans were dreaming of what would have been the best result in their history. Eighty-five minutes later, they fully appreciated the reasoning behind their opponent’s nickname, the Blue Brazil. In the space of 77 minutes, American Samoan goalkeeper Satila Tupua saw 16 shots fly past him into the net as the Solomons equalised, took the lead, and then scored 14 more for measure.

Five days after the tournament began, American Samoa were eliminated and embarrassed. The progress shown in November had stagnated here and it was clear that the success enjoyed at senior level was not to be replicated in the country’s youth sides.

However, American Samoa can take some consolation from their five days of disaster. Their first-half performances against all three sides, as well as the fact that two goals were scored, showed that future victories are possible. They may have taken one step forward and two steps back, but don’t be surprised to hear another shock wave from Samoa when the side next takes to the field.