Monday 27 February 2017, 06:57

Pacific pair bound for India after historic fortnight

It was a familiar name at the summit come the conclusion of the OFC U-17 Championship as New Zealand won their sixth successive crown. However, the two-week tournament will long be remembered for the history-making achievement of New Caledonia, with the Melanesian nation also winning through to the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017. It will be the first World Cup appearance for New Caledonia, and comes just 13 years after their induction as a FIFA Member Association.

The 2017 edition of the tournament was always set to be a milestone event, with two tickets on offer to the world stage for the first time. An eight-nation field lined up in Tahiti on the confederation’s far eastern limits. All 11 OFC members competed, with Samoa the lone nation progressing from the four-team preliminary competition.

History-making match-ups There were strong hopes for the host nation following highs over recent years for the senior national side and the Beach Soccer team. Despite a lengthy preparation, which included a season in the local senior first division, Tahiti found themselves heartbroken as Papua New Guinea hit a late winner in their decisive final group match to edge the home side on goals for.

Papua New Guinea then had the tables turned in their semi-final in a gallant defeat against New Zealand, who needed an injury-time winner from Oliver Whyte for a 2-1 victory that sealed their passage to India.

History was certain to be made in the other semi which featured New Caledonia and Solomon Islands, the latter having only appeared at futsal and beach soccer editions of a FIFA tournament. In the end, New Caledonia were good value for a 3-2 win in a match they led for long periods. Vita Longue’s goal midway through the second half proved to be the winner, while the Solomons pulled a goal back in the final minute.

“It’s beautiful because it goes well beyond what I could have imagined,” said New Caledonia coach Michel Clarque. “I was a bit worried that the stress would affect them because it is not easy knowing that you’re playing in a World Cup qualification match, but we played with strong spirit and it gave us confidence.

“Now we have seven months to work and we’ll see how we’ll perform in the World Cup. We’ve made our mark on the history of New Caledonian football.”

Kiwis fly high New Zealand may have been pushed to the very limit in the semi-final before reaching their sixth successive U-17 World Cup, and eighth overall. However, they showed their class in the final with a 7-0 rout of an overwhelmed New Caledonia. It was a stunning performance from the Kiwis at the Stade Pater, in which there were six different goalscorers, while Max Mata netted twice.

New Zealand’s celebrations continued after the final whistle with Charles Spragg picking up both the Golden Boot for his seven goals, as well as the Golden Ball as player of the tournament. New Zealand’s Zac Jones was named best goalkeeper at the tournament.

Experienced coach Danny Hay said the preparation for the October tournament in India will commence immediately. “We’re going to get back to New Zealand and then try and put a plan in place around how we approach the World Cup,” he said.

New Zealand will head to India seeking to better their three appearances in the last-16. “We’re very pleased that they (New Zealand) showed so much character and fight to actually see it through. The players are going to have to go home and starting working. They’ve got to maintain some real form to be picked for the World Cup squad.”