New Zealand and New Caledonia may have qualified undefeated for the FIFA U-17 World Cup but the icing on the cake would be being crowned the OFC U-17 Championship winners following the final at Stade Pater on 24 February.
Still overwhelmed at having etched their names in the history books as the first New Caledonian team to qualify for a FIFA tournament, and the first nation outside New Zealand and Australia to qualify at U-17 level, coach Michel Clarque is hoping his side can continue their winning streak into the final.
However he knows but he knows the vastly more experienced New will offer the greatest challenge for his team to date.
“New Zealand have very good players and we can see that they’ve played a lot of matches, which is not the case for us in New Caledonia,” he said.
“That’s where the difference is. Young New Caledonian players don’t play enough matches, but in the end this is football and in a match, in 90 minutes, any team can win.”
Regardless of the outcome, Clarque is ecstatic with regards to the milestone his side has already achieved and knows they’ve made their country proud.
“The most important goal was to qualify for the World Cup, which both teams did. A win in this match will hopefully just be a happy ending for the tournament.”
After winning four-from-four so far in the competition, New Zealand coach Danny Hay is preparing for a tough final against New Caledonia, the only other unbeaten side.
“We know that they are going to be very strong. We’ve seen a little bit of video footage of them play, they’ve got a lot of big athletic players and they’re really going to be trying to win for their country, as we’re going to have to do as well,” he said.
“They’re very robust, very athletic, they’ve put teams under a huge amount of pressure. They’ve got some real size so in set-pieces they’ll be a genuine threat.
“We’re trying to recover as quickly as we possibly can and get ready for that. It’s about getting our feet back on the ground very quickly.”
Relieved to make it through to the final despite a slower performance from New Zealand in their semi-final against Papua New Guinea, Hay is hoping his side performs better with the pressure of World Cup qualification off their shoulders.
“I think the pressure got to a few of the boys but this is the first time that they’ve had to face pressure like that before, they’re 15 and 16-year-old young men, so it’s a big learning curve for them,” he said.
“We know we’re going to have to be at the top of our game to win and they’re going to throw everything at us, but we’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be a good encounter and a nice way to finish the tournament.”
New Caledonia vs. New Zealand
Friday 24 February
Vital Statistics: New Caledonia’s last appearance in an OFC U-17 Championship final was in 2003 when the decider was played as a two-legged match. Their showdown was against former OFC Member Association Australia, who dominated both matches to take home the title.
The Players: Titouan Richard has stood out as a relentless attacker on the wing throughout the tournament, creating multiple chances with well-placed crosses and closing down the counter attack with his defending from the front.
Coach Quote: “In the end this is football and in a match, in 90 minutes, any team can win.”
New Caledonia: 1. Germain ITA (GK), 2. Josuah HLEMU, 3. Titouan RICHARD, 4. Kiam WANESSE, 5. Cameron WADENGES, 6. Abiezer JENO, 7. Raymond LUEWADRIA, 8. Cyril NYIPIE, 9. Vita LONGUE, 10. Lionel THAHNAENA, 11. Paul GOPE-FENEPEJ, 12. Bernard IWA, 13. RAOUL WENISSO, 14. Japhet QAEZE, 15. Ezeckiel TAOUAVAMA, 16. Pierre BAKO, 17. Jean-Pierre ENOKA, 18. Robert CAIHE, 19. Henri KAPOERI, 20. Unë KECINE (GK).
Coach: Michel CLARQUE (NCL)
Vital Statistics: If New Zealand win their match against New Caledonia, they will become six-time consecutive champions. New Zealand have only ever given up the title to one other nation, former OFC member association Australia.
The Players: Late substitute Oliver Whyte was the hero of New Zealand’s semi-final match against Papua New Guinea, scoring the winning goal in the fourth minute of additional time after taking the field only five minutes earlier.
Coach Quote: “We know we’re going to have to be at the top of our game to win and they’re going to throw everything at us, but we’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be a good encounter and a nice way to finish the tournament.”
New Zealand: 1. Dylan BENNETT (GK), 2. Jordan SPAIN, 3. Josh ROGERSON, 4. Liberato CACACE, 5. Jake WILLIAMS, 6. Leon VAN DEN HOVEN, 7. Elijah JUST, 8. Oliver DUNCAN, 9. Max MATA, 10. Willem EBBINGE, 11. Matthew CONROY, 12. Zac JONES (GK), 13. Matthew JONES, 14. Kingsley SINCLAIR, 15. Ben DEELEY, 16. Oliver WHYTE, 17. Matthew PALMER, Charles SPRAGG.
Coach: Danny HAY (NZL)