With only conceding once in their three previous outings, Vanuatu’s defence played a key role in propelling Etienne Mermer’s side to the semi-finals of the OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifier as Group B winners.

And at the centre of the Melanesians’ rock solid defence stands the towering figure of Joseph Iaruel offering composure, calmness and experience.

The 21-year-old couldn’t hide his delight following his side’s progression to the knock-out stage with the maximum points.

“I feel excited and this is what we have planned for, our aim was to top our pool, so for us players we are all excited about our achievements so far,” he enthused.

The 191 centimetre defender, whose mother hails from Tonga, brings a rich football pedigree into the Vanuatu U-23 side with his older brother Seiloni also involved in the game as a goalkeeper for one of Vanuatu’s top club sides, Amicale.

Joseph, whose footballing carrier has also started at Amicale, has years of experience in both at OFC Champions League and national team level.

“I started out with Amicale with their youth programme, then I joined the U-17 national squad and represented Vanuatu in that level, U-20’s , U19’s and U-23’s and we went to the U-20 world Cup and the mini games, Pacific games and  now I play for Galaxy FC. I previously Played for Shepards United then I got called by the Galaxy management team and I signed a contract with them,”  he explains.

After receiving his first international cap at the 2014 OFC U-20 Championship as a 16-year-old, Iaruel captained his side at next year’s OFC U-17 Championship where Vanuatu finished in third place.

In 2016, he was an integral part of the Vanuatu’s history making side which finished runners-up at the OFC U-20 Championship on home soil to qualify for the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea.

It was the first time Vanuatu, the smallest country ever to reach football’s World Cup, have qualified for a FIFA event, and that experience gives the current team plenty of confidence ahead of the knock-out stage in Lautoka.

“Yes, if we could do it on home soil with the U-20 world cup qualifier , I believe we can do it again with the  Olympic qualifier,” he insisted.

Iaurel and his teammates will also be able to draw from some of the lessons they’ve learned at the  U-20 FIFA World Cup, where the young Vanuatu side flew Oceania’s flag with distinction, pushing European giants Germany as well as Mexico all the way before suffering narrow 3-2 defeats in both of those games.

The key defender, whose resume also includes OFC Champions League stints with Erakor Golden Star and Malampa Revivors, will need to be at his best when facing a dangerous Solomon Islands attack in Wednesday’s semi-final at Churchill Park.

Aware of the threat posed by their Melanesian rivals, Iaruel is expecting a tough and closely contested encounter.

“Our game with our wantoks, we have similar style, pretty much the same, we don’t hold the ball too long, we just play 1-2 and keep it alive so it won’t be an easy game for us because all the teams here are prepared and expect to win and qualify for the Olympics,” he said.