(Photo credit: OFC Media via Phototek).
Ifira Black Bird have risen phoenix-like from the ashes to beat Tiga Sport 1-0 at Freshwater Stadium in Port Vila and make the semi-finals of OFC Champions League 2023 in their home country of Vanuatu.
In their very first Champions League campaign Ifira rebounded from a first-up loss and a heartbreaking draw to record their first-ever win at the elite club level in the Pacific, ensuring home town interest will continue into the second week.
Following the result of the day’s first match – where AS Pirae beat Hekari United 2-1 to confirm top spot and earn a semi-final date with Suva FC on Wednesday – both teams knew what they needed to do heading into the game.
For Ifira only a win would see them jump from bottom of Group B into second spot and confirm a playoff contest with Group A’s top qualifier Auckland City FC. For Tiga Sport a draw would suffice.
Light drizzle fell through most of the encounter but it couldn’t dampen the spirits of the passionate home crowd, nor the committed home side.
Both teams had excellent chances in the first 15 minutes – Tiga Sport goalkeeper Jean-Yann Dounezek was called on to make three important saves and his captain Shene Welepane was only denied by the crossbar.
But the game changed and the group sprung into life when Ifira Black Bird scored in the 19th minute. Outstanding attacking midfielder Jordy Tasip delivered a delicate, pinpoint aerial floater for right wing Godine Tenene to power onto and expertly head over the despairing Dounezek.
Tiga Sport were spurred into action and Black Bird goalkeeper Andreas Duch had to make two important parries in the 25th and 33rd minutes.
The half finished with the livewire Tasip – eventual Player of the Match – hitting the side netting after another likely incursion.
The second half was filled with end to end action on a deteriorating pitch and the game’s defining moment occurred in the 79th minute when Duch only partially covered a powerful shot and the slippery ball eluded his grasp and rolled towards the goal. He scrambled desperately and just managed to save the ball from going entirely across the line…to the collective relief of the nation of 300,000.
The entire match was tense, tight and tumultuous, but the final moments went ‘next level’ as goal-scorer Tenene missed doubling the score when hitting the woodwork with a belter.
The five minutes of additional time seemed like an eternity before the final whistle blew and the crowd erupted as the players fell to the ground in exhausted relief.
The Sunday celebrations promise to last long into the night, if not the week.
Ifira Black Bird: 1 (Godine TENENE 19’)
Tiga Sport: 0