2016 marked a major milestone for Vanuatu, which became the smallest country ever to reach a FIFA tournament by securing qualification for the U-20 World Cup in South Korea.
With two World Cup spots on offer for Oceania teams for the first time, Vanuatu entered the 2016 OFC U-20 Championship on home soil hoping to write an exciting new chapter in their nations’s football history.
The Melanesians had never qualified for a FIFA event before and were haunted by string of near misses.
At U-20 level alone they had finished third four times and in 2014 they finished as runners-up to Fiji, who qualified for the New Zealand-hosted FIFA U-20 World Cup the following year.
Drawn into Group A with New Caledonia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea the tournament hosts made a perfect start to their 2016 campaign beating defending champions Fiji 1-0 at Port Vila’s Municipal Stadium.
In their next encounter, Etienne Mermer’s men produced a clinical second half performance to ease past Papua New Guinea 3-1, before grabbing a narrow 1-0 win over New Caledonia that saw them top Group A to set up a semi-final against Group B runners-up Solomon Islands.
With home advantage and form behind them, Vanuatu had their best chance in years to reach a global event.
And the historic opportunity was not lost on captain Bong Kalo.
“The boys want to write a story, a new story for Vanuatu football. Vanuatu have been involved with U-17, U-20, U-23 and senior tournaments in the past but we’ve never won,” said the skipper ahead of his team’s crucial match against their Melanesian rivals.
“This team wants to be the first to qualify and write our own story for Vanuatu football,” added Kalo.
The semi-final was a tense encounter and with the score locked at 1-1 for the entire second half, the game looked to be heading for extra-time as the atmosphere reached fever pitch at the packed-out Port Vila Stadium
However, deep into injury time captain Kalo unleashed a shot that goalkeeper Harold Nauania could only parry into the path of Frederick Massing who tapped in to send the home crowd into absolute delirium.
Following the dramatic winner, which sent his nation to their maiden FIFA U-20 World Cup, Massing couldn’t hide his delight.
“I am so happy to score the winning goal for Vanuatu,” he said.
“Today is a huge day for me and all the players. Now we look forward to representing our small nation in the FIFA U-20 World Cup,” added Massing.
Solomon Islands had earlier taken a 21st minute lead courtesy when Joe Gise’s swirling free kick past Willie Dick.
Godine Tenene levelled the scores, before the game took a dramatic turn with 13 minutes remaining when Vanuatu defender Jason Thomas pulled back Israel Tatai by his shirt.
Thomas received a booking for his part but with Tatai lashing out, referee Nick Waldron had no alternative but to show a red card to the Solomon Islands striker.
Jabeth Solomon missed a great chance to win it for the Solomon Islanders after finding himself through on goal as the clock ticked down, before Massing’s dramatic injury-time winner.
Vanuatu’s technical advisor Declan Edge said the scenes of jubilation at full-time, with the crowd joining the team on the pitch for the celebrations, brought home what it meant for the island nation of 280,000 people to reach a FIFA event.
“Maybe I’m just grasping what it means to the group now,” said Edge.
“There’s grown men that I’ve been working with for the last month crying so it’s obviously pretty emotional. It’s the first World Cup that Vanuatu have ever been to.”
“I thought we deserved to win. We were the most dominant team, the team most looking to score and attack. We were knocking on the door the whole game and sometimes you have to wait to the last minute.”
The victory sparked wild scenes in Port Vila, and the celebrations continued four days later in the final despite a lacklustre performance by the home side which ended in a 5-0 defeat in the hands of tournament winners New Zealand.
Joining the Kiwis at the 2017 FIFA World Cup in South Korea, Vanuatu produced two memorable performances against Mexico and European giants Germany to set a benchmark for future generations to aspire to.
After conceding in stoppage time to suffer a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Mexico, the Melanesians were thrashed by Venezuela 7-0.
However, in their final Group B match against Germany, Bong Kalo scored twice to push the Europeans all the way before narrowly going down 3-2.
Competing in their first ever World Cup tournament, Vanuatu well and truly proved they deserved their place.