New Caledonia and New Zealand have booked their tickets to the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India after defeating Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea respectively in two nail-biting semi-final clashes in the OFC U-17 Championship at Stade Mahina, Tahiti, tonight.
New Caledonia made history for their country when they claimed their first ever spot at a FIFA tournamant and a place in the OFC U-17 Championship final after holding on to their lead and winning 3-2 in their neck-and-neck match against Solomon Islands.
Later, New Zealand sealed their sixth consecutive qualification but needed an 94th minute winner from substitute Oliver Whyte to edge past Papua New Guinea 2-1 just as their match looked headed for penalties.
In the first semi-final, Pierre Bako opened scoring early for New Caledonia when he followed up a clearance from the Solomon backline and fired the ball past an off-guard Joel Nanago in the 23rd minute, and the New Caledonians’ physical game kept the Solomons away from goal for the remainder of the first half.
Steward Toata fired back with an equaliser in the 63rd minute after impressive build-up play between him and his teammates. However, despite enjoying an advantage in both territory and possession for the majority of the game, the Solomons were unable to hold New Caledonia out on the counter attack and the Francophones regained the lead in the 68th minute when Abiezer Jeno connected with a free kick in the Solomon box and found the net before goalkeeper Joel Nanago could make a move.
New Caledonia was sure the game was theirs when Vita Longue netted with 11 minutes remaining but a goal from Junior Allen in the fourth minute of additional time closed the gap and gave Solomons the inch of hope they needed to keep fighting, albeit in vain.
New Caledonia coach Michael Clarque was overwhelmed by the huge milestone reached by his young side, becoming the first New Caledonian team to qualify for a World Cup.
“It’s beautiful because it goes well beyond what I could have imagined,” he said.
“I was a bit worried that the stress would affect them because it is not easy knowing that you’re playing a World Cup Qualification match, but we played with strong spirit and it gave us confidence.
“Now we have seven months to work and we’ll see how we’ll perform in the World Cup. We’ve made our mark on the history of New Caledonian football today.”
Solomon Islands coach Marlon Houkarawa was heart-broken to fall short of reaching the final and the World Cup, but still felt proud of the effort given by the young team throughout the competition.
“I’m disappointed in the result. We expected the win today but unfortunately things turned out different. I believe the boys did all they could do but they were exhausted,” he said.
“I think they did extremely well in their previous games, especially against New Zealand and Fiji. Today they did not perform as I expected, not the same as they did against New Zealand a few days ago, but in football, anything can happen.”
In the second semi-final, the first few minutes of the match looked like a repeat of New Zealand’s 11-0 win against Samoa in the Group Stage, with the defending champions up 1-0 in the third minute after Papua New Guinea’s Aben Pukue tried to clear a cross but found the back of his own net.
Papua New Guinea soon scored again, this time past Zac Jones, when Barthy Kerobin volleyed a deflection into the net, ending the first half with the score tied 1-1.
The second half saw both teams fight neck-and-neck in the middle of the park, taking turns at pressuring their opponent’s goal but failing to break the backlines. Charles Spragg stood out up front for the Kiwis with several on-target attempts but Graham Berigami’s quick hands blocked every one of Spragg’s chances and kept the Papua New Guinean’s in the game.
Oliver Whyte made his heroic move when he charged into the penalty box and, in full stretch, reached a toe to the ball and sent it into the bottom right corner in the third minute of extra time to send his nation to the final, and to the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India.
New Zealand coach Danny Hay felt very lucky to walk away with the win against a very talented and passionate Papua New Guinea side.
“It was a really difficult encounter which we knew it was going to be. We had chances that we probably should have put away a lot earlier. Their keeper pulled out some incredible saves so you’ve got to Papua New Guinea, they really fought well and showed a lot of pride and a lot of spirit in fighting for their country,” he said.
“We’re very pleased that they (New Zealand) showed so much character and fight to actually see it through. It’s very difficult out here in these sorts of conditions and humidity and heat so very pleased that they’ve actually got the job done.”
With his initial goal of the competition achieved, Hay is now looking forward to giving one last fighting performance in the OFC U-17 Championship final before he turns his focus to preparation for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in India.
“That was the number one goal, qualifying for the World Cup. We’ve now got a final to play so that’s going to be straight into the boys’ minds.”
Despite their last minute loss to New Zealand ending their World Cup dream, Papua New Guinea coach Harrison Kamake was stunned by their performance and proud of the relentless effort put it by his young side.
“It was really amazing. The boys really went up to the challenge. It’s a bit disappointing that they scored in the additional time, it was a heart-breaker for the boys,” he said.
“I have been really impressed by the boys and their mentality towards the tournament. Our one purpose was to be competitive and we’ve all seen how competitive our boys have been throughout the whole tournament.”