Vanuatu were also celebrating after picking up the bronze medal by beating Fiji 2-0 in the 3rd/4th play-off match.
New Zealand were the only undefeated team in the tournament and lived up to their tag of favourites by overpowering the Mamulas in the second half of the final after the scores were locked at 1-1 on the half-time whistle.
Coach Chris Milicich’s men had scored 19 goals and conceded none in their three matches so far and it looked like being a long afternoon for the Solomons when midfielder Cory Chettleburgh put New Zealand ahead within the first four minutes. The wideman broke down the right and advanced towards Silas Seda’s goal before firing a low shot past the Solomon keeper and into the far side of the net to send the Junior All Whites and many of the 3500-strong crowd into ecstasy.
And it wasn’t long before the stadium erupted again, this time to celebrate a strike at the other end in the 22nd minute. New Zealand were enjoying a spell of pressure around the Solomon box and Dakota Lucas had a strong appeal for a penalty waved away by Tahitian referee Norbert Hauata after the diminutive striker was strongly tackled by Michael Boso.
The ball quickly broke to Solomon midfielder Toata Tigi and he put Himson Teleda – who had scored twice in his side’s thrilling win over Vanuatu in the semi-final – in on goal with a well-weighted pass. The fleet-footed winger still had plenty of work to do and was under pressure from several New Zealand defenders but managed to control the ball exquisitely and squeeze it past goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic to keep the Mamulas’ dream of reaching Colombia alive.
There was no further score for the remainder of the half but it was the home side who looked most likely to strike, Seda needing to be at his best to keep out a Lucas header with a brilliant save in the 26th minute before Marco Rojas saw his curling effort tipped onto the bar eight minutes later.
The Solomon Islands were still right in the contest though and defended stoutly to deny New Zealand’s dangerous attack until the 57th minute. Andrew Bevin had come on at half-time in place of fellow striker Ethan Galbraith and didn’t take long to make his mark, acrobatically sending a close-range volley over his shoulder and into the net after a goalmouth melee.
The intensity of the Junior All Whites’ celebrations made clear how crucial they felt the goal was and it turned out to be the defining moment of the game as the Solomons failed to get a shot on target in the second half and saw their fading hopes all but extinguished in the 63rd minute.
This time, it was not a piece of fine offensive play that outdid them but an unfortunate defensive error. If they were to have any chance of pulling off an upset win today, Noel Wagapu’s side needed to perform at their best and keep their mistakes to a minimum but instead defender Boso picked the worst possible moment to lose his concentration and send an under-hit back pass in the direction of Seda.
Lucas was quick to pounce on the error and nudged the ball past the exposed goalkeeper before sliding it into an empty net to make it 3-1.
The Mamulas now needed to somehow find a way to breach the New Zealand rearguard, which had been superbly marshalled by central defensive pairing Nick Branch and James Musa throughout the tournament. Instead, it was New Zealand who carved out the only remaining opportunities, Bevin and Lucas both missing excellent chances to increase their tallies in the final 20 minutes.
But their failure to find the net further did little to dampen the spirits of Milicich, who was elated to have won a tournament New Zealand has not had a history of triumphing in.
“It’s a great feeling,” he says. “Finals are never easy, it’s do or die on both sides. But I thought we were the better team and deserved to win.”
Despite being level at the break, Milicich remained confident in his players’ ability to get back in front and finish the job off.
“We were pretty calm in there because it was nil-all at that stage the last time we played them and we got on top in the second half then,” he says. “I knew we could run them off the ground. We decided to make the change up front and Andrew Bevin went on to cause chaos and score the one that counted. Then we brought Andrew Milne on to shore up the left-hand side and suddenly they were out of the game. I thought the coaching staff across the board did a really good job today and the team responded.”
Solomon Islands coach Noel Wagapu was disappointed to miss out on a piece of history – his side would have been the first age-group team from the country to qualify for a FIFA World Cup – but feels his side could not have done much more.
“It’s the first time a lot of our boys have been exposed to this level of competition and the way they performed was more than satisfactory,” he says. “It was pleasing to see us score against New Zealand because nobody has been able to do that so far. We are proud of that goal and I think if we had organised ourselves better we wouldn’t have given them those opportunities to score. We can only blame ourselves.”
Two goals to Jean Kaltak, in the fifth minute and first-half stoppage time respectively, were enough for Vanuatu to secure third place earlier in the afternoon against a Fiji side who struggled to regroup following their heavy semi-final defeat to New Zealand.
“I thought it was important we won the game because we have prepared for this for a long time, we’ve been together for two years now,” coach Moise Poida says.
“It’s better for us to go home with a bronze medal than with nothing. We all felt like we should have been in the final but we have still done well at this tournament and I feel we are much stronger than in previous years.”
Kaltak had further reason to celebrate after his six strikes were enough to win him the Golden Boot, while Seda received the Golden Gloves for being the best goalkeeper of the tournament and Marco Rojas was awarded the Golden Ball as the most impressive outfield player.
The FIFA U-20 World Cup takes place in Colombia from July 29 to August 20 and New Zealand have been drawn in Group B with Cameroon, Portugal and Uruguay.
Vanuatu – Fiji Match Summary click here
Solomon Islands – New Zealand Match Summary click here
Competition Summary click here