The XVI Pacific Games football competition is winding up to a much anticipated finale tomorrow following the conclusion of the competition’s group stage in Samoa yesterday.
Over five match days and across 45 matches, the men’s and women’s teams from 12 different nations have put their hearts and bodies on the line in the hopes of securing a spot in the coveted Gold Medal matches.
In the men’s category, defending Pacific Games gold medallists New Caledonia will take on newcomers New Zealand U-23, with high hopes of retaining the title.
Meanwhile for the women, host nation Samoa have booked an historic place in the final against Papua New Guinea, the only women’s team to have won gold in the Pacific Games football competition.
Samoa’s best-ever finish to date was their fourth-place in 2015 after they lost the play-off to Cook Islands. This time around the conditions have fallen in their favour and coach Nicola Demaine is determined to see her side rewarded for the hard work they’ve put into preparing for this event.
“Obviously we are pleased with the results, to have your team come back from two goals down and walk away with the three points, you can’t ask for anything else from your players,” Demaine said of her side’s final group match against New Caledonia on Thursday when they chased down a two goal deficit to record a 3-2 win and secure their place in the final.
“They all went out there and gave one hundred per cent and it was enough on the day to get us through to the gold medal match. The Samoa women’s team have played three historical matches in this competition where they won against Fiji 1-0, Tonga 5-0 and drew against American Samoa.
“I can say we are making history and every girl whose watched today should go out there and pick up a football and be one of these people in 15 years’ time, it’s the best game in the world and it’s the easiest game to organise and Samoa could be massive in the Pacific region if we can work in the right way after the success of this women’s team,” Demaine added.
Papua New Guinea are determined to deny their hosts of a fairytale ending.
Having recovered from one of their worst Women’s World Cup qualifying campaigns late last year, the side has regrouped and is looking much stronger thanks to some of the experience which has been added to the ranks to complement the more youthful members of the squad.
Veterans Deslyn Siniu and Dorcas Sesevo are back in the mix, while US-based defender and co-captain Lucy Maino has also returned.
Papua New Guinea have made a clean-sweep of the gold medals since women’s football was introduced to the Pacific Games and they’re eager not to end their streak at four.
Coach Frederica Sakette, who incidentally captained Papua New Guinea to gold 16 years ago, wants to see her players enjoy the same success she and her former teammates had.
In the men’s final it will be an interesting showdown with neither of the two sides dropping a match in their run to the final.
New Zealand U-23, conceded just once while scoring 20 goals on the way to topping their group ahead of the likes of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa.
The most memorable result has been a 2-0 triumph over Papua New Guinea, for whom nine members of the starting line-up were part of a team that drew with the All Whites in the final of the 2016 OFC Nations Cup before being beaten on penalties.
New Caledonia are likely to provide an even bigger challenge but midfielder Dane Schnell, who found the net in that Papua New Guinea victory and assumed the captain’s armband for the second half, sees no reason why New Zealand can’t earn a similar outcome.
“Any final is a big game and this is why we play football,” he said.
“The feeling is good in the camp and we’re all absolutely buzzing to have got this far. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us but I feel like we’ve made improvements in every game and we’re just hitting our stride now.
“We watched New Caledonia the other day and they’re a very good side with some really attacking forward players. They’ve got a lot of senior players who have played for their country for a long time,” Schnell says.
“Regardless of who you’re coming up against, it’s always going to be very tough and tight in a final. But we’ve had a couple of days for our bodies to recover and we’re looking strong.”
New Caledonia have had an equally successful run to the final, scoring 22 goals without conceding once, against strong opposition such as Fiji, Solomon Islands and Tahiti.
Coach Thierry Sardo is delighted his side has made it this far without incident and hopes that will continue into the play-off for gold.
“I’m pleased that all 23 of my players have taken part in these games, that everyone has had game time. I think New Zealand will be a bit fresher than us for the final because they haven’t played since Monday.
“But I know that with the ball we have the ability to cause them problems.”
In the men’s bronze medal match Papua New Guinea will take on Fiji, an opportunity for Roy Krishna and his men to avenge their defeat in the 2015 play-off.
Fiji have a strong history in the Pacific Games having finished on the podium on six previous occasions, however in the past two editions they’ve been denied in the play-off.
That third-place in 2015 for Papua New Guinea meanwhile, was their best finish in the history of the competition and having narrowly missed out on playing for gold after their 2-0 loss to New Zealand, the side will be keen to relive the glory of 2015.
In the women’s play-off Fiji will once again feature, this time playing against the Cook Islands for the bronze medal.
Fiji go into the match with a 3-0 victory over their opponents during the group stage of the OFC Women’s Nations Cup under their belts. However Cook Islands never fail to prove their tenacity and grit in big games, with determination one of the deciding factors in the 2015 play-off when they fended off Samoa to claim bronze.
All in all, tomorrow’s matches will be thrilling conclusion to what has been two weeks of sometimes surprising, but always entertaining football at the J.S Blatter Football Complex in Apia, Samoa.