Monday 20 August 2018, 04:49

New Zealand, Tahiti fly high as gap narrows in the Pacific

  • New Zealand win fifth OFC U-19 Championship in six attempts

  • Tahiti will also represent Oceania at 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup

  • Qualifying tournament marked by tight matches

New Zealand claimed a fifth continental title in six attempts at U-19 level to earn passage to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019, along with runners-up Tahiti. But while the Kiwis maintained their dominance, the 2018 edition of the Oceania championship provided evidence that the gap is narrowing in world football’s smallest confederation.

New Zealand were forced to come from behind to narrowly defeat New Caledonia in their semi-final and win passage to Poland. New Caledonia, whose line-up featured numerous players from their history-making side which featured at the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017, once again proved their quality at continental level.

New Zealand, who were missing several unavailable squad members, then needed a lone second-half goal from Trevor Zwetsloot to see off hosts Tahiti in the tournament decider. The Kiwis also recorded a hard-fought 2-1 win over Tahiti earlier in the tournament to top Group A.

The last time the New Zealanders missed out was when Tahiti won passage to Egypt 2009. Several members of that Tahiti side went on to feature for the national side in their memorable 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup appearance.

Success over the past fortnight was a welcome boost for the Tahitians, who suffered disappointment when they hosted the U-17 continental tournament two years ago. That anguish was cast aside with an emphatic 3-1 win over a hopeful Solomon Islands in the semi-final.

The French Polynesians have made an incredible impact at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in recent years, and now their U-20 side have the opportunity to carve out their own niche at the highest level.

Meanwhile, there was disappointment for Vanuatu who went home without a point in Group B, while an unlucky Fiji – impressive participants at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup - missed a semi-final berth on goal difference.

For all their success at senior level in recent years, Papua New Guinea managed just a single win. They headed bottom-side Tonga, but even participating was a triumph of sorts for the Polynesians, who qualified for the first time after winning the preliminary stage.

What they said “Since two berths at the FIFA U-20 and U-17 World Cups became available to OFC we have seen a rise in the level of football in our region. The competitiveness witnessed in the two semi-finals at Stade Pater shows the investment being made in the development of football across our region.” OFC President Lambert Maltock

“It [the final] was a very tough game and you can see the work Tahiti has put in over the past year they were very hard to break down." New Zealand coach Des Buckingham

“It’s true that we’ve had other generations which have come before, but this one definitely deserves its place among them.” Tahiti coach Bruno Tehaamoana after his side earned a place in the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the first time in a decade.

“I’ve qualified for a World Cup before and it was the best feeling of my life and now I’ve got that feeling again. So I’m lucky I’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime feeling twice in my life.” New Zealand forward Max Mata

Results Winners: New Zealand Runners-up: Tahiti Semi-finalists: New Caledonia, Solomon Islands Golden Ball: Joe Bell (New Zealand) Golden Boot: Max Mata (New Zealand) – 5 goals Golden Gloves: Moana Pito (Tahiti)