Total Pageviews

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


While Euro 2012 was getting under way, in the South Pacific, meanwhile, Oceania's 2012 OFC Nations Cup was drawing to a close, and there was a surprise winner. Tahiti have made history by winning the 2012 OFC Nations Cup, and have done so in several ways. The Tahitians, representing not just their island but the entire pays d'outre-mer of French Polynesia (French "overseas country"; French Polynesia was formerly an overseas department of the French Republic), won the OFC Nations cup for the very first time by after defeating New Caledonia 1:0 in the final of the competition, which was held from 1/6/12-10/6/12 in the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara.

It is the first time that a team representing a Francophone nation or territory has lifted the trophy, and also the first time that a side other than New Zealand or (former OFC member) Australia have won the competition. The Solomon Islands were awarded the right to host the tournament after Fiji were stripped of the hosting rights, not only to the OFC Nations Cup but also to the OFC men's and women's Olympic qualification tournaments, due, it is alleged, to a legal dispute between OFC General Secretary Tai Nicholas and the Fijian government.

Eight nations took part: hosts Solomon Islands, red-hot favourites New Zealand, Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, winners of the preliminary competition and rank outsiders Samoa, Tahiti and Vanuatu. The teams were split into two groups of four, and while Group A was completed in a reasonably straightforward manner, Group B threw up one or two little surprises, a trend which was to continue all the way to the end of the final.

To briefly recap on the preliminary round, which took place in the Samoan capital, Apia, Samoa finished top of the qualifying group by defeating American Samoa 1:0 thanks to a goal which came in the dying seconds. A vastly improved American Samoa achieved their first-ever win at senior international level, beating Tonga 2:1, and their first-ever draw in a 1:1 stalemate with the Cook Islands, who had lost 3:2 to hosts Samoa. Samoa then drew 1:1 with Tonga, who rounded off their campaign with a 2:1 win over the Cook Islands. Tonga's victory was not enough to put them in contention, however; they could only sit and watch the two Samoas fight it out for a place in the OFC Nations Cup finals.

The game was a tense affair, in direct contrast to how most observers would have imagined the match would have turned out before the tournament started. After their regular dismal showing in the the 2011 Pacific Games, nobody would have put any money on American Samoa getting a point in the competition, let alone being possibly the width of the post away from qualification. They hit the post moments before Samoa broke forward and Silao Malo broke their neighbours' hearts with a goal in the very last minute of normal time. American Samoa received all the plaudits (and are a subject of a documentary, Next Goal Wins, which is still being compiled but should be released in the very near future) but Samoa qualified for the finals.

Unfortunately, the good times did not roll for Samoa at the finals themselves. They were drawn in Group A, together with New Caledonia, Tahiti and Vanuatu. Malo scored for Samoa during the tournament's opening game on 1/6/11 against Tahiti; unfortunately, the Tahitians were already 6:0 up, and went on to hit double figures, winning 10:1. Incredibly, a set of three brothers and their cousin, all with the surname Tehau, scored 9 of Tahiti's goals (surely a record in its own right - more history for the Tahitians?): Lorenzo, who scored 4 times including 3 in less than 5 minutes, his twin brother Alvin, who scored twice, his other brother Jonathan, who also bagged a double, and cousin Teaonui, who had to be content with just the one goal. Tahiti's other goal was scored by Steevy Chong Hue.

Group A's next fixture, Vanuatu against New Caledonia, saw another hat-trick, this time for New Caledonia's Bertrand Kaï, in a 5:2 win for Les Cagous (named in honour of the Cagou, a bird unique to New Caledonia which is threatened with extinction). Vanuatu got off the mark in their next match two days later, a 5:0 win against Samoa, with five different players getting on the scoresheet.

Later the same day, Tahiti raced into a 3:0 half-time lead against New Caledonia. There had been some talk before the tournament started that Tahiti, formerly a regional powerhouse, would, after years of unremarkable performances, be a force to be reckoned with once again, and their first-half showing against one of Oceania's top national sides seemed to back up this assertion. However, a see-saw last 15 minutes saw the Tahitians scrape home by the skin of their teeth, winning 4:3.

New Caledonia proceeded to take out their frustration on Samoa on 5/6/12, walloping six goals past the outsiders in the first-half before adding another three goals in the second-half; Jacques Haeko scored five of the nine. The result pretty much ensured Les Cagous' progress to the semi-finals, and this was confirmed after Tahiti easily disposed of Vanuatu, winning 4:1 and going forward themselves to the semis as group winners, with the Three Tehaus all getting their names on the scoresheet after Nicolas Vallar opened the scoring for the Polynesians from the penalty-spot. Robert Tasso, who had scored in each of Vanuatu's previous two games, completed the full set by netting a consolation goal in the 95th minute.

There was an extremely sad postscript to Samoa's elimination, and it came in the form of tragic news that goalkeeper Motu Hafoka, who had been between the posts during Samoa's first game in the finals against Tahiti, had died. According to a report published on the Talamua website on 3/7/12, the 25-year-old had hanged himself at the back of his family home, and was found by relatives in the early hours of 30/6/12. Hafoka played for SamoaTel National League Premier Division side Moaula United and was widely regarded as one to watch for the future. 

Two days after news of Hafoka's death was announced, New Caledonian football was mourning the death of 26-year-old André Naxue, who had played for Les Cagous in the 2007 Pacific Games, but wasn't selected this time round. A report on the FCF website ( said that the AS Magenta player, who had been suffering from a heart ailment which had sidelined him for around two years but who was preparing to make a comeback, had left "a big void behind him." Naxue had played 4 times for the New Caledonian national team.

Tahiti and New Caledonia were through to the semi-finals, but who would join them from Group B, a group featuring Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands? Although the points table at the conclusion of the group round of matches would suggest otherwise, Group B was to prove to be a series of tense, low-scoring matches with little enough separating the teams.

Fiji and New Zealand got proceedings under way on 2/6/12, with Oceania's 2010 World Cup representatives claiming a hard-earned win thanks to Tommy Smith, who scored early on, latching on to the rebound after Fiji 'keeper and captain Simione Tamanisau spilled a free-kick. Tamanisau's opposite number, Mark Paston, performed heroics to keep the Fijians out on several occasions. Fiji's Alvin Singh did put the ball in the net, but it was ruled out after Pita Senibiaukula was adjudged to have fouled Paston after the goalkeper had fumbled the ball. 

Benjamin Totori got the hosts off to a winning start in the day's other match against Papua New Guinea with a goal in the fifth minute, beating PNG goalkeeper Leslie Kalai with a shot inside the near post, which Kalai had left hopelessly exposed. The Bonitos were unable to add to their lead in spite of dominating the match, though Samuel Kini's shot rattled the Papua New Guinea crossbar on the hour mark.

Papua New Guinea were as good as eliminated from their first tournament in a decade after losing 2:1 to New Zealand in their second match on 4/6/12, with the Kiwis getting off to a perfect start, going in front after just two minutes thanks to a Shane Smeltz header. They went on to dominate the first 20 minutes or so, with Chris Wood's effort being ruled out for offside, but PNG had more of the game in the remainder of the first half, and started the second half in similar fashion.

However, Wood put the proverbial spanner in Papua New Guinea's works by scoring New Zealand's second after 52 minutes after he latched on to a Smeltz pass and slotting the ball past Leslie Kalai in the PNG goal. Smeltz hit the bar just before the hour mark after Wood returned the compliment, but Papua New Guinea were still creating the majority of the game's chances, though they were being much more profligate than their Antipodean counterparts.

They finally scored in the last minute of normal time, courtesy of Neil Hans who scored from the penalty-spot after experienced Kiwi defender Tony Lockhead handled in the area. However, it was too little, too late and PNG found themselves bottom of the Group B table with no points from two games. The afternoon game between Fiji and the Solomon Islands ended in a 0:0 stalemate, with the hosts dominating throughout but couldn't break through the Fijian defence. Both teams had goals chalked off for offside: Bonitos captain Henry Fa'arodo, after a quarter of a hour, and, late on, Pita Bolatoga for Fiji both thought they had done enough to put their respective sides in front.

Both Fiji and Papua New Guinea were eliminated from the competition after they drew 1:1 in their final group game, though Fiji had one foot in the semi-finals for the majority of an entertaining game after Maciu Dunadamu headed them in front in the 14th minute. Kema Jack broke Fijian hearts five minutes from time with a header at the near post, just reward for his own endeavours during PNG's three games, in which he had shown himself to be a one-man awkward squad, but the goal condemned both sides to an early exit from the competition.

So, New Zealand, as expected, had made it through as group winners to the semi-final stage, where they would meet New Caledonia, but it would be Group B runners-up and hosts Solomon Islands, who would take to the field first against Tahiti. The vast majority of the crowd at the the Lawson Tama Stadium were expecting an easy home win, but it was the underdogs who struck first after a fairly even first 15 minutes when Jonathan Tehau headed Tahiti into the lead past Felix Ray, leaving a static Bonitos defence horribly flat-footed.

The Solomon Islands had chances enough to score during the remainder of the 90 minutes, with James Naka missing perhaps the pick of them in the 37th minute when he shinned a Benjamin Totori cross over the Tahitian bar with 'keeper Xavier Samin stranded. Four minutes later, Alvin Tehau could have made Naka pay for his profligacy, but the Tahitian shot across Ray's goal when it was easier to put the ball on target. Despite increased pressure on Samin's goal from the Solomon Islands as the game went on, the Toa Aito (Iron Warriors) had made it through to their fourth OFC final, ensuring that the hosts would have to make do with a place in the third-place match.

Many observers were predicting a Solomon Islands : New Zealand final, but that would not come to pass. Instead, the first all-Francophone final was to become a reality after New Caledonia sprung the second surprise of the semi-finals by defeating the Kiwis 2:0 in the afternoon match. Jacques Haeko almost put New Caledonia in front in the 9th minute after a howitzer of a shot from the edge of the New Zealand penalty-area, which hit - and probably took a big chunk of - the outside of the post. With 36 minutes gone, Shane Smeltz found himself in acres of space but failed to put Chris Wood's crossfield on target, heading the ball just wide of Rocky Nyikeine's goal.

An hour into the game, New Caledonia got their noses in front after Haeko got the merest of touches on an Olivier Dokunengo pass to direct the ball to Jason Kai, who deftly chipped the ball over the onrushing Jake Gleeson. Six minutes later, Michael McGlinchey's effort hit Les Cagous' bar after a throw-in caused all sorts of bother in the New Caledonia defence; Chris Killen headed over from the rebound. The New Caledonians made the game safe two minutes into injury-time when a breaking Iamel Kabeu found Georges Gope-Fenepej with no-one near him in the New Zealand box, and Gope-Fenepej drew Gleeson before sidefooting the ball over the goalkeeper. 

There were scenes of jubilation among the New Caledonian players and staff at the game's conclusion, and the All-Whites could hardly complain about the result. They had had their chances, but hadn't taken them; New Caledonia were by far the most clinical of the two teams on show, and got what they deserved - a place in the final, against Tahiti.

The final was to take place on 10/6/12, but there was the small matter of the third-place match featuring the Solomon Islands and New Zealand to come first, and anybody expecting a dour affair would have been pleasantly surprised. There was certainly nothing dour about this game, although one would have been forgiven for thinking otherwise after New Zealand had roared into a 3:0 lead inside half-an-hour at a sparsely-populated Lawson Tama Stadium, courtesy of a Chris Wood treble.

Joshua Tussulia almost put the Bonitos in front with a looping header early on, but his effort was headed off the line and behind by Aaron Clapham. Wood scored the first of his hat-trick 8 minutes when Shadrack Ramoni flapped at the ball but was beaten to it by Kosta Barbarouses, who headed it on for Wood to nod home. Wood's second came after a move involving Marco Rojas and Ian Hogg, who sent in a cross from the left-hand side of the pitch with more than enough time and space to spare for the West Brom man to head past an exposed Ramoni at the far post.

Poor defending contributed to Wood's third, when another cross from the left, this time from Rojas, found Wood, who was prowling around the penalty-spot with enough time and space to plant a spud-patch, but who instead controlled the ball before scuffing his shot, the bounce of which deceived Ramoni and found the bottom left-hand corner.

Just before the break, the Solomons almost found a way back into the game after substitute Benjamin Totori hit the bar with a superb left-footed shot from 20 yards out. They did get on the scoresheet 3 minutes into the second-half when Himson Teleda struck a sweet shot through a melée of players and past Gleeson's despairing dive into the bottom right-hand corner. Gleeson could not have been blamed for conceding such a goal, but he would have to accept total culpability for the Solomon Islands' second 6 minutes later, when he allowed Totori's speculative shot on goal from the edge of the area on the right to trickle through his hands and legs at the right-hand post.

The game went this way and that, but the All-Whites were still looking odds-on to finish in third until a couple of minutes to go in normal time. A cross-field ball from Henry Fa'arodo found Totori out on the left hand-side; Totori cut in, shuffled and stepped-over his way into a shooting position before rifling a shot between two defenders and past Gleeson into the top right-hand corner to level for the Solomons. If Totori, who had been making a complete nuisance of himself in and around the New Zealand penalty-area since his introduction into the match, had scored such a goal in a Premier League game, you can bet your bottom Zimbabwean dollar that it would have been a contender for Goal of the Month on Match of the Day.

Totori's goal was good enough to win any game, but four minutes into injury-time, Shane Smeltz won it for New Zealand. Once again, a large slice of poor defending was to blame. While the Bonitos' defence was ball-watching, they failed to notice that the left-hand side of their defence was completely devoid of anyone in a green and yellow shirt. Smeltz simply ambled into space, received a perfectly-timed cross-field pass, controlled it and calmly half-volleyed a lob over the unfortunate - and yet again isolated - Ramoni to win the game for the Kiwis.

The game was up for the Solomons, and they would have to make do with fourth place when, at one stage, the final was more than within their reach. They wormed their way through a tight group, and were more than capable of reaching the final, but bad finishing seemed to plague them all the way through the tournament, and their defence was a bit on the small side, while playing very a narrow system, leaving them exposed on the flanks. Nevertheless, Benjamin Totori embellished his reputation somewhat and, as a result of his exploits during the tournament, has joined A-League side Wellington Phoenix, who are coached by..New Zealand manager Ricky Herbert. Henry Fa'arodo, meanwhile, played a captain's role, while young Himson Teleda seems like a real find.

There was a large contingent of players among the All-Whites squad which had represented New Zealand at the 2010 World Cup, but the team as a whole did not do themselves justice. Wood caught the eye, Shane Smeltz also weighed in with a couple of goals, and Aaron Clapham held things together somewhat in midfield. Kosta Barbarouses will be heading to Greece next season; he has been recruited by Panathinaikos on a year's loan from Russian side Anzhi Vladkavkaz (remember them, Liverpool fans?). Consolation for both sides was the fact that they would both be going forward to the final stages of the OFC qualifiers along with the OFC Nations Cup finalists, New Caledonia and Tahiti.

On to the final, then, and no matter the winner, it would be the first final between two Francophone nations and would provide a new name on the trophy. New Caledonia went into the final as clear favourites, having won last year's Pacific Games as well as being runners-up in the previous edition of the OFC Nations Cup. It would also be the fourth time that the Toa Aito had reached the final.

Les Cagous had the first real chance in the 8th minute when Jacques Haeko, who had been looking dangerous throughout the tournament, stole the ball in midfield but, with Tahitian defenders scampering after him, lost his footing as he shot from the edge of the penalty-area and the ball went a foot the wrong side of Xavier Samin's goal.

Two minutes later, Tahiti took the lead; Lorenzo Tehau's cross was flicked on by brother Jonathan into the path of Steevy Chong Hue, who controlled the ball with his thigh, swivelled and half-volleyed the ball low to the right of Rocky Nyikeine and into the corner of the net.

New Caledonia had the Tahitians under the cosh for most of the rest of the first half, but with half-time approaching, Tahiti broke only for Nyikeine to save from the third of the Tehau brothers, Alvin; the rebound broke to another Tahitian but Nyikeine saved again before a third man in white eventually got the ball past the goalkeeper at the third attempt. However, Émile Bearune was on hand to block the shot, which bounced on to the bar and away as a mass follow-up scramble ensued.

Ten minutes after half-time, Lorenzo Tehau had the ball in the New Caledonian net, smashing the ball into the net via the crossbar after a fine cross-field ball from sibling Jonathan, but the goal was disallowed due to an alleged handball; judging from replays, though, it appeared that the ball struck Tehau in the chest and not on the arm.

Ten minutes later, Marius Bako almost equalised but for Samin to punch the ball clear on the goal-line as he was falling backwards into his goal, and a few minutes later, Haeko missed another chance to get New Caledonia on level terms, volleying over the bar. Shortly afterwards, as Les Cagous continued to ratchet up the pressure, Georges Gope-Fenepej bullied his way into the Tahitian penalty-area only for his shot to find the side-netting. With ten minutes left, the industrious Gope-Fenepej missed perhaps the best chance of the whole match as he latched on to Haeko's delightful chip over the Tahitian defence, only to sidefoot the ball past Samin but wide of the post.

New Caledonia continued to press into injury time, but to no avail, and, thanks to Chong Hue's early goal, Tahiti were thus crowned champions of Oceania, a position they could only have dreamt about after finishing third at the 2011 Pacific Games. It was the Tahiti team's fourth final in the history of the OFC Nations Cup in all of its previous guises, after near-misses in 1973, 1980 and 1996.

Amid scenes of utter, almost disbelieving, joy, a clearly emotional Eddy Etaeta, manager of Tahiti, said after the final whistle that it had taken ten years for the team to reach this stage, and it was magnificent that his team would be one of eight teams competing in next year's Confederations Cup, which will be held in Brazil. Team captain Nicolas Vallar told OFC TV that his team's principal objective was to qualify for the 2014 World Cup elimination round, but he believed that Tahiti would win against New Caledonia and that the team's victory was really something for Tahiti, a nation of 150000 people.

Local newspaper Tahiti News called the national team's triumph and qualification for the Confederations Cup "superb and unexpected." The next day's headline in La Dépêche, meanwhile called the OFC Nations Cup win "An Historic Title for Tahiti," and a headline in the same publication a couple of days later proclaimed that "The Tom Thumb Tahiti is invited to Brazil, home of the giants of football." Website Tahiti Infos' headline, in comparison, more or less stated the obvious: "Tahiti lift the OFC Nations Cup and go down in history."

The Toa Aito will represent the OFC at the Confederations Cup in Brazil in June next year, while the more fancied teams will be left at home to lick their wounds. The Fédération Tahitienne du Football (FTF) are guaranteed a USD$1 million pay-out for taking part in the tournament, and it hopes to use some of that money to improve facilities, and the standard of the game, in French Polynesia as a whole.

It will be the third time that a Tahitian side have qualified for the world finals in a football tournament: in 2009, the Under-20 side qualified for their age-group's World Cup in Egypt, but lost all three of their group games, scoring no goals and conceding 21, while last September, the national beach football team defeated Venezuela 5:2 at the Beach Soccer World Cup in Italy, but didn't make it out of their group. (Tahiti shall be hosting next year's edition.)

It will be difficult for their 11-a-side compatriots to make any sort of impression in Brazil; after all, apart from the Selecão, who will doubtless be regarded as the hosts with the most, newly-crowned European champions Spain, Euro 2012 runners-up Italy, Copa América winners Uruguay, CONCACAF Gold Cup holders Mexico and Asia's finest in the shape of Japan's Blue Samurai have already booked their places at the 2013 Confederations Cup party. Africa's representatives will be known after the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, which will be held in South Africa.

The Tahiti side, who are also known as Team Fenua (which very roughly translates as Team of Our Motherland), will be regarded as the ultimate minnows by one and all, and will have their work cut out to achieve any sort of positive result in the Confederations Cup, but it will be a perfect showcase for the country and its players - it may well be evergreen goalkeeper Xavier Samin's last hurrah, as the 34-year-old was due to hang up his gloves for the national team after the OFC Nations Cup, though is not inconcievable that he might just be persuaded to board the plane to Brazil next June. First up, though, for Samin and Co, is Oceania's final qualifying round round for the 2014 World Cup, which will begin on 7/9/11, when the Toa Aito will be visiting Honiara once again to take on the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia are scheduled to take on New Zealand at home in Nouméa.

Will the Bonitos and Les Cagous avenge their defeats to the Tahitians, who ran out winners in all five of their OFC Nations Cup finals games? Will New Zealand regain their composure and storm through the qualifiers, as most neutral observers would expect? Or, will Tahiti confound the experts once again to take on the fourth-placed CONCACAF team in October next year? It will be a very competitive round of matches, certainly, and Tahiti will not be fancied to repeat their triumph in Honiara, but, regardless of how it all ends up, they will be enjoying their place in the sun and will be doing their utmost to put on a good show. More power to them.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Much of the information was taken from the OFC website (which is always well worth a visit):

There will be more on Tahiti to come; watch this space.

No comments:

Post a Comment