By Peter Rees – OFC Media Officer

14 April, CANBERRA – The 2003 OFC Women’s World Cup Qualifiers concluded on Sunday 13 April with the effervescent Australia Matildas emerging convincing winners having gone through the round robin tournament unbeaten, scoring a mammoth total of 45 goals along the way while not conceding a single goal.

A young, but talented New Zealand outfit were the only team that on paper were seen as a threat to the experienced Matildas and it was appropriate that the two giants of Oceania met last Sunday in the final round of the tournament. Both teams came into the match undefeated with Australia enjoying a slight advantage in goal differential. This meant a draw was good enough for them to qualify and playing on home soil at the Belconnen Soccer Centre was supposed to be another huge advantage.

As expected, the match turned out to be a physical encounter with New Zealand providing a stern challenge matching it with the Australians in the first quarter. But midway in the half the potent Matildas attack began to make inroads working the ball wide to utilise their speed on the flanks to get behind the New Zealand. A clash of bodies saw Fijian referee Rajendra Singh wave play on and Joanne Peters following through collecting the loose ball and dribbling past two defenders to score past New Zealand goal keeper, Yvonne Vale, even though her shot was miscued.

New Zealand was awarded a free kick not long after but Nicola Smith’s shot went over the crossbar. New Zealand made an early substitution with defender Terry McCahill coming off for youngster Hayley Moorwood. But the Matildas sustained this pressure and finished the stronger team at the half coming close to scoring again from two free kicks.

The Matildas carried this momentum into the second half and were rewarded when Danielle Small blasted in a 25 metre shot from the left side just four minutes after the restart to give her team a comfortable 2-0 lead. Staring down the barrel of defeat, but with ample time remaining, the confidence of the young New Zealand outfit seemed to fade in contrast to the Matildas who began to dominate the crunch round five fixture which had everything hinging on the result.

Both teams made substitutions midway through the half. The Matildas continued to control the tempo of the game with New Zealand’s only real scoring chance coming in the 79th minute when substitute Wendi Henderson found Simone Ferrara in the box but Matildas defender Dianne Alagich was able snuff out that chance. Small came close to scoring her second goal to put the match beyond doubt but her diving header from Foster’s cross went wide. Soon after Fijian referee, Rajendra Singh, blew the whistle for time Australia winning the match and a trip to China. While Australia were worthy winners, New Zealand deserved praise for their brave performance with a young team. They gained some consolation with their star player, Maia Jackman, finishing the tournament as the leading scorer with ten goals.

But the moment definitely belonged to the classy Australians who will be a force to reckon with come September when they line up against fifteen other teams to vie for the 4th FIFA Women’s World Cup which will be hosted in China. It will be Australia’s third consecutive World Cup appearance after New Zealand qualified for the inaugural World Cup back in 1991. They displayed a fast-paced, tactical style of play in Canberra that was beautiful to watch. They also showed amazing mental toughness and depth in their squad, especially when their captain Cheryl Salisbury had to pull out of the final match against New Zealand because of a leg injury.

For the island nations there were some positives and further indications that the gap will close further provided more exposure to international competition comes their way. Papua New Guinea finished in third place winning two matches and was awarded the Fair Play award which was presented at the conclusion of the match between Australia and New Zealand.

Samoa improved from their last appearance in 1998, and also managed their first ever international win and goal against the Cook Islands in the Polynesian derby in round four. To see the smile on goal scorer Lynette Laumea’s face and the expressions of combined relief and jubilation inscribed on the faces of her team-mates and officials on the sideline, brought everything into perspective and summed up the spirit of competition and what it can provide to the human spirit.

The Cook Islands appearing in their first World Cup qualifying tournament could also take a lot of positives away having scored their first international goal when Melanie Rakei found the back of the net against Papua New Guinea in the first round. Both Samoa and the Cook Islands fielded very young teams, many of them will be still around for the next two World Cup qualifiers at least. And by then, with a concerted effort from all to develop women’s football in the Oceania region, we are sure to see the gaps closing in future.

For detailed reports and statistics on the 2003 OFC Women’s World Cup Qualifying Tournament, visit the official website by clicking on the tournament icon on the OFC website home page (situated on the right) below the masthead.