A slice of Oceania football history was created by Tonga at the 2018 OFC U-19 Championship Qualifier tournament thanks to the triumph of Soane Mailangi’s team in the Cook Islands.
From the outset of the competition, held between May 26-June 1, the Tongan coach insisted his side had a clear vision and determination to become the first ever national team from the proud Pacific nation to win a Qualifier tournament.
The Tongans showed their intent by scoring three first half goals to brush aside hosts Cook Islands in their opening match, before securing a comfortable 2-0 win over American Samoa to set up decisive final encounter against Samoa.
Knowing that a draw was enough because of their superior goal difference, Mailangi’s men went into the match against their Polynesian rivals as slight favourites.
However, the pendulum swung after just eight minutes, as the impressive Samuelu Malo gave Samoa the lead with a powerful long range free kick.
Very little separated the two sides with chances at both ends in the remainder of the first half.
Following the break, the team in red pressed forward searching for an equaliser, while Samoa looked to be content to slow the pace of the game and rely on counter attacks.
As the chances were drying up Mailangi’s players looked to be on the verge of another disappointing campaign.
But the turning point came with the introduction of Tuia Falepapalangi who came on to replace Viliami Tukia in the 54th minute.
The move paid off as the Tongan No 7 hit the target just 12 minutes later with a spectacular drive from distance.
The reds kept their cool for the rest of the match to hold firm and repel Samoan ambitions and New Zealand referee Cory Mills’ final whistle with the score at 1-1 sparked emotional scenes and jubilant celebrations amongst Tongan players and officials.
“This is the moment we have been waiting for, just like I said before, this is history, the first time for Tonga to go through,” Mailangi said after the match.
“This U-19 age group, we have put them through a good pathway, we trusted them and today we are the team that came top of this tournament.
“I’m proud of the team, proud of our Technical Director for his technical advice for us, this is the moment that we have been waiting for.”
Although Tonga was unable to defeat Samoa, Mailangi said his side did exactly what it needed to win the tournament.
“For me, a game is a game and it doesn’t matter if you win by miles or win by an inch, both is winning and today we came out on top.”
The 2018 OFC U-19 Championship in Tahiti a few months later provided another learning curve for the Tongans who left the tournament with their heads held high despite three defeats in a tough group, which included eventual winners New Zealand, Tahiti and Papua New Guinea.