One man who has been working hard behind the scenes to help the side achieve their dream of qualifying for their first FIFA tournament is assistant coach Anthony Pisano.
They players couldn’t have asked for a better mentor.
Pisano was a member of the 1987 Australia U-17 team which qualified through the Oceania Football Confederation for the FIFA U-17 World Cup – and he knows full well the trials, tribulations and personal pressure associated with international competitions.
“It’s quite strange being back at an OFC qualifier but I’m enjoying it,” Pisano says of his return to Oceania after Australia departed the Confederation for the Asia Football Confederation in 2006.
“I came through the whole OFC qualifiers with Australia back then and It’s quite good being able to give something back to the boys in Vanuatu.”
Pisano has been living full-time in Vanuatu for the past five years and his involvement in Vanuatu football started in 2013 when he became the U-17 team manager.
“My wife’s originally from Vanuatu and she’s been back in Australia with me for 15 years and now it’s time for me to experience her country,” he says.
“Andrew Leong introduced me to the team knowing my background. He suggested I could potentially help them so I started with last year’s OFC U-17 Championship and we had a fairly successful tournament – and now I’m here.”
Pisano achieved a relatively high level of success for the era in which he played.
“I started at five years old in Australia and played through to the Australia National League – the old national league before the A-League,” he recalls.
“I played for APIA Leichhardt and also played at the FIFA U-17 World Cup back in 1987 so my background is pretty much semi-professional at that time because they didn’t have professional back then.”
Pisano says one of the great things about his current role is being able to share his experiences with this new generation of Vanuatu footballers in an effort to instil just how great an honour it is to represent your county at the highest level.
But admits it’s not the easiest thing to describe the feeling of playing at a World Cup.
“It was really exciting, I mean one of the most amazing things in my life. That’s what I keep explaining to the boys, that they should strive for that as it will be an unforgettable experience for them if they can qualify,” he says.
“It is difficult to try and explain exactly what it means to qualify and take part in an event like the World Cup. Back then in Australia we had hundreds of kids trialling and going through training camps and I still remember when there were 30 of us and the squad had to be cut down to 20.
“Just the emotions of the 20 that made it, and then the 10 that didn’t – the tears. It meant a lot to kids back then and it still does now. It’s such an important event and these guys are lucky to have the opportunity to potentially qualify.”
The 1987 U-17 Australia squad featured players like Oceania Goalkeeper of the Century Mark Bosnich and Steve Horvat, who earned 32 caps for Australia during his career.
Pisano says at the time Australia were very much the underdogs of the competition, much like Vanuatu are here in Suva.
“I’ve tried to instil that back then we were the minnows going to play in a World Cup in a group that featured France, Brazil and Saudi Arabia – and we ended up winning the group.
“We actually beat Brazil 1-0 and nobody expected us to do it. We just lost to France and then beat Saudi Arabia and won the group, going through to the quarter-finals and that was just through pure discipline and determination.
“We were tactically nowhere near as good as the Brazilians or the French but just having that belief in ourselves – these boys can do it too if they really believe.”
Pisano has no official coaching credentials but believes the assets he contributes to the group are his passion for the game – and tactics.
“A lot of the players I played with back in Australia are professional coaches and I’ve worked with them over the past ten years coaching various teams. Guys like Rale Rasic, Michael Urukalo, Les Scheinflug and Vic Dalgeish who are the old Australia coaches. A few of the players I used to play with that are now coaching are Pail Okon, Tony Popovic – I could go on,” he laughs.
“Officially I don’t have a piece of paper that says I’m a professional coach but just what I’ve learned through a passion and understanding of the game.”
With one game left to play in this championship Vanuatu will hope to end the competition on a high against American Samoa this afternoon at 5pm. Presuming they do the business, they’ll have to await the outcome of the competition’s final match between leaders Fiji and the Solomon Islands at 7.30pm to learn their fate.