Vanuatu also had plenty to celebrate after winning bronze with a 1-0 defeat of Papua New Guinea in the 3rd/4th play-off earlier in the afternoon.
It was the second game that will linger longest in the memory though after enthralling the lively crowd from the moment Greg Draper slotted home a penalty to put the Oly Whites in front in the 18th minute. It proved to be the winner as New Zealand held off a strong second-half showing from Fiji to book their ticket to London and leave coach Neil Emblen a relieved man at the final whistle.
“What an up-and-down game,” he said. “It wasn’t much of a football spectacle to be honest, it was more of an 11-on-11 scrap. But it was nice to see the boys step up and match them physically because we thought they might have an edge there. We thought we had more quality about us than them but today wasn’t a day for quality football. We managed to scrap enough and get the result.”
Referee Norbert Hauata had a busy afternoon as both sides put their bodies on the line and made the defining call of the match when he pointed to the spot after Ilisoni Tuinawaivuvu handled in the box. Draper kept his head in the high-pressure situation to coolly place the ball past goalkeeper Akuila Mateisuva and ultimately send his side to London.
It was far from straightforward from that point on though, the Oly Whites having to survive several scares in the second spell as Fiji desperately tried to keep their Olympic dreams alive. As expected, the Fijians were particularly strong from set pieces and very nearly got back into the game just after the break, captain Esava Naqeleca and Zibraaz Sahib both hitting the crossbar in quick succession with headers from Misaele Draunibaka deliveries.
“We spoke all week about how if we got Fiji in the final we would need to be wary of their set plays,” Emblen said. “They hit the woodwork twice and we rode our luck at times but you take that luck when it comes along.”
Fiji counterpart Imdad Ali was gracious in defeat and was quick to offer his thanks to the strong contingent of Fijian supporters, many of whom had travelled down from Auckland.
“A penalty is a hard way to lose a game but that happens in football sometimes,” he said. “We knew how they would play and were mostly able to contain them so it was unfortunate.”
The earlier match was an all-Melanesian affair with the coming together of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea’s similar playing styles. The game was won on 38 minutes when a sustained spell of pressure from Vanuatu paid off as young star Jean Kaltack spun his marker on the edge of area and smashed home one of the goals of the tournament.
Things only got worse for Papua New Guinea when captain Roland Bala was lost to injury shortly before half-time and, despite enjoying a strong wind at their backs after the break, Frank Farina’s side couldn’t find a way through. Vanuatu had claims for a penalty deep into stoppage time when goalkeeper Roland Warisan took out Kaltack but referee Gerald Oiaka played advantage only for Robert Tasso and Kaltack to then miss clear scoring opportunities.
“It was good to finish on a high because we have prepared very well for this tournament,” Vanuatu coach Richard Iwai said. “We could have won by more but it was a long tournament and I think my boys were tired.”
Farina was disappointed to leave Taupo with nothing and cited his men’s failure to find the net as their downfall.
“We lacked intensity and I thought our final pass in the front third was very poor today,” he said. “You have to score goals to win games and unfortunately we’ve come up short in that area here.”
In the individual honours, Naqeleca was named player of the tournament and New Zealand gloveman Jake Gleeson the best goalkeeper while Solomon Islands striker Ian Paia walked away with the golden boot. Tonga received the fair play award.
Papua New Guinea vs. Vanuatu Match Summary: Download Here
Fiji vs. New Zealand Match Summary: Download Here
Competition Summary: Download Here