Our OFC women’s national teams returned to action after a long lay off in May, with the Women’s Nations Cup held in Suva, Fiji. The tournament was a great success, with large crowds in to cheer on the home side and a very even spread of results from start to finish.
Given this was part of FIFA Women’s World Cup 2022 qualification, New Zealand did not attend as they had automatically qualified as co-hosts. Therefore, nine teams made for a unique tournament between hosts Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. HBC Park in Suva was the venue for the action, which was well attended by locals and plenty of students at the nearby University of the South Pacific.
Many of the teams were fielding new players, which made it tough to predict, but the traditionally strong Papua New Guineans were favourites. Because of New Zealand’s absence, it meant we would see a new champion no matter what – as the only winners of the Women’s Nations Cup before this year were either the Football Ferns or Australian before they left the confederation.
The group stages proved to be very competitive, with Samoa emerging as a well-drilled team under new coach Paul Ifill. Led by Monique Fischer, the Samoans beat Tonga 2-0 and Tonga 1-0 to top Group A.
Group C saw hosts Fiji draw with the Solomon Islands 1-1, then beat New Caledonia 3-1 to top the group. The Solomons and New Caledonia drew 2-2, which saw the Solomons advance in second place.
Papua New Guinea finished top of Group B after wins over Tahiti and Vanuatu. This meant the game between Tahiti and Vanuatu therefore became crucial for the knockout stages, and dramatically ended 0-0 after a penalty kick was saved by Tahitian goalkeeper Camille Andre. The result left Vanuatu, Tonga and New Caledonia level on points and goal difference, which meant that Vanuatu’s disciplinary record saw them eliminated.
The breathless nature of the tournament continued in the quarters, with the game of the tournament taking place between Papua New Guinea and heavy underdogs Tonga. The Tongans took a 2-0 lead into halftime, before Ramona Padio and Meagan Gunemba equalized to make it 2-2 at full time. PNG looked to have won it after Padio scored her second, before Jazmine Loto’aniu sensationally locked it back up at 3-3 and sent the game to a shootout. Padio, Gunemba and Rayleen Bauelua all calmly slotted home their spot kicks to win the shootout for PNG 3-2, but Tonga left the field having won much admiration for their courage and effort.
The other quarters saw Samoa advance after beating New Caledonia 4-2, Fiji downed the Cook Islands 2-0 and the Solomons got past Tahiti 1-0.
By the semis, the stars on the pitch had begun to shine but none more so than Fiji’s Cema Nasau. The 23-year-old scored three goals, all in the knockout stages, and won an incredible three player of the match awards in a row. Nasau scored twice in the 3-1 semifinal win over the Solomons. In the other semi, PNG beat a brave but clearly tired Samoan team 3-0 – astonishingly the largest margin of victory in the entire tournament.
The Solomons won a tense third place playoff over Samoa after a 1-1 deadlock led to a shootout, in which the Solomons found the back of the net with every kick to win 6-5 and spark ecstatic scenes among their players and legendary coach Bartram Suri.
The stage was set for a memorable final, played in front of a raucous crowd at HBC Park. PNG had clearly learned not to be complacent after their scare against Tonga, dominating the game early and scoring the first goal through Gunemba after 17 minutes. Padio then doubled the lead 11 minutes later. It was always going to be an uphill battle for Fiji against the well-organised PNG defensive unit, and although Nasau pulled a goal back in the 42nd minute, the visitors shut the game down in the second half to win 2-1.
Gunemba, Padio and Samoa’s Stewart were jointly awarded the Golden Boot award with five goals each. Nasau won the Golden Ball for Player of the Tournament. Tahitian goalkeeper Andre was given the Golden Glove Award, while Samoa picked up the Fair Play Award for their spotless disciplinary record.
The maiden win sees Papua New Guinea advance to a FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 Qualifying tournament in New Zealand in February to compete for the last places in the main tournament.