OFC international football burst back into life in March, when our region’s top men’s sides battled for the chance for a place in a World Cup play-off match. New Zealand, Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji traveled to Doha, Qatar, due to border restrictions meaning OFC was unable to host the tournament in the region.
Unfortunately, restrictions in Qatar meant that the entire tournament was played in closed stadiums.
New Zealand came in as favourites and highest ranked team competing. They didn’t disappoint, ultimately making it through Group B with three wins, 12 goals scored and only one conceded. A landmark was achieved in their 4-0 win over Fiji, when striker Chris Wood scored his 30th international goal – making him the highest ever goal scorer for New Zealand.
Despite losing 1-0 to New Zealand, Papua New Guinea advanced to the semifinals after a tough 2-1 win over Fiji in their last group game.
Group A was unfortunately affected by pandemic-related issues, forcing the withdrawal of the Cook Islands and Vanuatu. This meant the only competitive game was between the Solomon Islands and Tahiti, who both advanced to the semIfinals.
The first semifinal between Papua New Guinea and the Solomons was an instant classic, with Alwin Komolong’s strike after 24 minutes giving PNG a 1-0 lead. However, Alvin Hou struck back twice for the Solomons before Raphael Lea’i gave them a 3-1 lead. PNG weren’t done, with Ati Kepo scoring late and then the game finishing with a flurry of chances but the Solomons hung on to win 3-2 and advance to the final.
Tahiti gave New Zealand a very competitive game in their semifinal, it took until the 71st minute for Libero Cacace to break the deadlock and give the favourites a 1-0 win.
The Al-Arabi Stadium was the scene for the final, which saw the Solomon Islands in their first OFC major tournament final since they met Australia in the 2004 Nations Cup decider. However, New Zealand were in a goal-scoring mood, with Bill Tuiloma finding the back of the net in the 23rd minute, then Wood making in 2-0 before halftime. Any thoughts of a Solomons comeback were dashed in the 50th minute, then Tuiloma got his second before Matthew Garbett complete a 5-0 win just before the end.
Solomon Islands head coach Felipe Vega-Arango said “everything is positive” from the tournament.
“I am extremely proud of my boys. This is football. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t. You have to accept it, congratulate your opposition and make sure the boys are happy.
“I told them when I went to the locker room not to be too disappointed. To be proud of what they have done and keep going from here.”
New Zealand coach Danny Hay said that:
“The group of players we have got, I cannot speak highly enough of them. The way they approach things, I think they try and make New Zealand proud every time they go out on a football pitch.”
Some of the stars of the tournament included 19-year-old Lea’i, who scored five goals. Solomons captain and goalkeeper Philip Mango also had a very strong campaign. Fiji’s Sairusi Nalaubu was their top scorer with two, while Tommy Semmy and Ati Kepo were strong for Papua New Guinea.
The result sent New Zealand into a playoff FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifying match against Costa Rica, held in Doha in July. After a hard-fought match, New Zealand lost 1-0.