New Caledonia has become the first finalist for the OFC U-17 Championship 2023, beating Tahiti 3-2 in a shootout after the two sides were locked 1-1 at full time.

Not only have the New Caledonians put themselves in with a chance of lifting the OFC U-17 trophy for the first time in their history, but also have automatically qualified for a spot in the FIFA U-17 World Cup later on this year in Peru.

The game kicked off in hot conditions at HFC Bank Stadium, however it wouldn’t have bothered either team too much given the climates they’d come from. It was the New Caledonians who started as the more aggressive side, not letting their opponents settle into the game and forcing a golden chance after only seven minutes. The impressive Jean-Yves Saiko, whose pace down the wing has lit up the tournament, sent a good ball into the area for Jean-Phillipe Angexetine but the midfielder couldn’t get a shot off.

The New Caledonians didn’t have to wait long to make up for it, though. A free kick given by referee Calvin Berg right out near the touch line was sent in by Nolhann Alabete, who had Gregory Diko unmarked. Diko’s outstretched foot couldn’t get a touch, but it didn’t matter, as the ball slid under Tahitian goal keeper Argan Clodic-Boucher and into the back of the net.

From then on New Caledonia tried to press home the advantage, but couldn’t find another goal despite good work in the midfield. So, it was a bit of a surprise after half an hour that Tahiti equalised in circumstances not too far removed from Alabete’s opener.

Captain Hitimoana Teuira sent a searching long ball forward, which striker Titouan Guillemant looked to have little hope of latching on to as he was surrounded by three New Caledonian defenders. Unfortunately for Wadria Hanye, his header played the ball right at the feet of Guillemant, who showed excellent skill to take a touch a chip the ball over goalkeeper Claude Tiaouniane and level the scores.

The chances kept coming, with the best going to Saiko not long after that drew a fantastic save by Boucher.

After halftime the pace settled down somewhat and both sides enjoyed long periods of possession in the midfield. But just as soon as it seemed like the game might meander towards the 90th minute, a dramatic moment of the afternoon occurred at the hour mark.

After a great run and threaded pass by Alabete, Saiko wore a shove by Eden Cadousteau that saw referee Calvin Berg point to the spot. Boucher pulled off a stunning save of Joseph Hnaissilin’s shot, but New Caledonian joy was short-lived as Berg waved it off and ordered the kick to be retaken due to players encroaching.

Hnaissilin’s second attempt again went low and to the right, but so did Boucher, who did exceptionally well to keep out a follow up effort by Jythrim Upa.

The goalkeeper’s heroics lifted his side. Tahiti threw themselves into getting the winner, but staunch defence by the New Caledonians stifled their attempts.

Both sides had their chances before Berg blew his whistle for the end of regulation time, under the rules of the tournament that meant the game went directly to a penalty shootout.

After both teams missed their first attempts, Guillemant and Noarii Cueno found the back of the net for Tahiti. Alabete, Diko and Saiko made no mistake for the New Caledonians in return. It came down to a shot by Hikutini Tamarii saved by Tiaouniane, then Tahiti’s captain Teuira sending his shot over the bar.

The result understandably led to an incredible outpouring of emotion by both sides, agony for Tahiti and ecstasy for New Caledonia. Tahiti will play off for third on Saturday, while New Caledonia meet the winner of Fiji and New Caledonia.

NEW CALEDONIA 1 (3) (Nolhann ALABETE 14’)

TAHITI 1 (2) (Titouan GUILLEMANT 30’)

HT: 1-1