The prospect of a historic qualification for next year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Korea looms large over Tuesday’s OFC U-20 Championship semi-final between Vanuatu and Solomon Islands in Port Vila.
Neither of the Melanesian pair have ever qualified for an age-group World Cup – the Solomon Islands’ three FIFA Futsal World Cup appearances are the only FIFA events either nation has been to – and this edition of the regional qualification tournament is offering two FIFA U-20 World Cup berths for the first time.
With the two semi-final winners – New Zealand take on New Caledonia in the other in Santo – claiming those tickets, the lure of Korea could well make qualifying for the final a secondary aim.
However, that’s not a theory Solomon Islands coach Pedro Mateo is buying into.
“The boys did a great job in the group phase when nobody expected to go through,” said Mateo, “and we jump now to a semi-final against the host country to decide which team will go through to the final.”
“I know everybody is talking about Korea but for me I want to play the final with these boys. I know that for the country it is an important day but we are trying to be relaxed and think about the game as an opportunity to play in the final.”
Vanuatu have been to the semi-final stage of the OFC U-20 Championship three times before, losing all of them. Adding to a picture of near misses, which is reflected at all levels, is the 2014 U-20 championship where two draws cost an unbeaten team a place in the New Zealand-hosted finals.
But as the only team to emerge from the group stage with three wins they are leaning in to the challenge of potentially being 90 minutes away from a World Cup.
“Pressure is a privilege,” said Vanuatu Technical Advisor Declan Edge, “it’s a privilege to be in this potion so we’ll take that pressure.
“We’re embracing the challenge. The team has won all its games so far which I don’t think Vanuatu has done before so we’re in a good position to do some good things.”
Skipper Bong Kalo has been the heartbeat of the ni-Vanuatu in midfield and highly involved throughout given their possession-based style. But they have quiet achievers in the heart of defence like Jason Thomas while only one shot has got past goalkeeper Willie Dick in three games.
Similarly, Solomon Islands has brought an element of balance to their style. They have a breadth of attacking talent with the likes of Albert Witney, Augustine Waita and Jabeth Solomon but key defensive performers like Richard Raramo counter the unpredictability in front of him with an air of calm and order.
While Vanuatu collected maximum points from Group A, Solomon Islands travelled a bumpier road to the semi-finals.
In their opening match, they fought back from two goals down to draw with Tahiti, a comeback that ultimately set them up to secure qualification with a hard-fought draw with Group B winners New Zealand.
“The top moment for us was coming back against Tahiti,” said Mateo, “because this gave us the option to qualify.
“Our draw against New Zealand was a good game but I would say also the match against the Cook Islands was important as people were saying it was already won before the match which isn’t true.”
“We will draw on that mental strength against Vanuatu because they will be feeling the pressure to qualify.”
Port Vila Stadium is expected to be near capacity for the match with the Vanuatu camp hoping that could make a difference.
“One of the reasons we wanted to stay in in Port Vila is most of the players are from here or around here. There’s been a nice consistency to our games and hopefully fans are looking forward to it,” Edge said.
“It will be a battle and we’d expect to see two teams that are desperate.”
The match kicks off at 2.30pm (VUT) in Port Vila with the first semi-final between New Zealand and New Caledonia starting at 11am at Luganville Soccer City Stadium in Santo.
Vanuatu vs. Solomon Islands
Port Vila Stadium
Port Vila, Vanuatu
Tuesday 13 September
Kick-off: 14h30 VUT
Referee: Nick WALDRON (NZL)
Assistant Referee 1: Glen LOCHRIE (NZL)
Assistant Referee 2: Folio MOEAKI (TGA)
Fourth Official: Mederic LACOUR (NCL)
Vital Statistics: Vanuatu has never qualified for a FIFA event before. Vanuatu have reached the semi-finals of the OFC U-20 Championship three times, but have never made the final. Two of those semi-final losses have been to Solomon Islands.
The Players: Jason Thomas has been a massive influence in a Vanuatu defence that has conceded just one goal in three games. While his height undoubtedly help him in his role, it is his reading of the game and organisation of those around him that are arguably his greatest assets.
Coach Quote: “We respect all our opponents but we’ll go on doing what we’ve enjoyed doing and had some success with, and hope we do okay.” – Declan Edge, Technical Advisor.
Vanuatu: 1. Andreas DUCH (GK), 2. Joseph IARUEL, 3. Jason THOMAS, 4. Selwyn VATU, 5. Jesse KALOPONG, 6. Claude ARU, 7. Bong KALO, 8. Godine TENENE, 9. Sylvain WORWORBU, 10. Ronaldo WILKINS, 11. Jonathan SPOKEYJACK, 12. Abednigo SAU, 13. Tasso JEFFERY, 14. Timothy BOULET, 15. Gregory PATRICK, 16. Harison MASSING, 17. Jayson TIMATUA, 18. Max UGUNA, 19. Frederick MASSING, 23. Willie DICK (GK)
Coach: Etienne MERMER (VAN)
Vital Statistics: Solomon Islands have never lost to Vanuatu at an OFC U-20 Championship. They have won two out of six, and drawn four (although they went on to win two of those draws – the 1994 3rd place playoff for 3rd place and a 2011 semi-final on penalties).
The Players: Joe Gise provides a solid defensive force for the Solomon Islands with the ability to lead a strong counter attack. Unafraid to make advances with the ball at his feet or to take a chance from distance.
Coach Quote: “We need to think about the tournament and after the tournament analyse what we’ve got. Of course it’s a big deal to go a World Cup and for the Solomon Islands it would be the first time. But for us we need to know that during the competition every game is a key game and we need to win and think about the rest afterwards.”
Solomon Islands: 1. Desmond TUTU (GK), 2. Sedrick DOLIASI, 3. Joe GISE, 4. Richard RARAMO, 5. Kisina SILAS, 6. Steven TOLEYI, 7. David FILIA, 8. Molis GAGAME, 9. Jabeth SOLOMON, 10. Albert WITNEY, 11. Adrian RICKSON, 12. Harold NAUANIA (GK), 13. Ian KALU, 14. Darold KAKASI, 15. Sandrack TUI, 16. Augustine WAITA, 17. Israel TATAI, 18. Alvin RAY, 19. Larry ZAMA, 20. John DAUTA
Coach: Pedro MATEO (ESP)