Okay, maybe I’m overselling the tournament a bit…after all that photo isn’t for soccer, it’s for a visit from Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. But c’mon, give it a chance! The OFC Nations Cup has all the things those other tournaments had: prestige, hardware, top players fighting for their home countries, a ticket to the Confederations Cup next summer, and of course: tiny islands with surprisingly fierce sports cultures striving to shock the established local powers.
But while you may know how to do the viking clap in honor of Scandinavian ancestors , and just how much tax trouble Messi is in (we are alive after all), you may not yet know what happened on the shores of Port Moresby or why it matters globally and locally. That’s where this article comes in.
First, let’s say goodbye (listed below in local parlance) to the teams we won’t be seeing again for another three-four years.
#115 Tofa, Samoa (+38 spots from 2014)
Why They Lost: Samoa was totally outclassed in their group, not scoring once as they gave up four to Tahiti, seven to New Caledonia, and eight to Papua New Guinea. Yet, they were also critical to deciding the tournament. While all three of their opponents are still alive for World Cup 2018, the bigger margins posted by New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea put those two sides in the tournament semi-finals.
What We’ll Miss: Jai Ingham (left) has all the heart-warming storyline of Jamie Vardy (lower-league darling with a part time job selling shoes, turned goal scorer against a Chinese Superclub in the Asian Champions League), with the added bonus of actual good looks. Though they called him up through parental nationality, Samoa didn’t get Ingham on the pitch and (not coincidentally) they did not score once at the Cup. Samoa desperately need someone to slot home the solid passes of midfielder Andrew Mobberly, however Ingham may not be that man. The only explanation I could find for him not playing is a single rumor circulating in New Zealand message boards that Ingham may have held back from joining his native side in case he can find a spot with more likely world class competitors Australia or New Zealand (not unlike fellow Samoan Tim Cahill).
#114 Mbem Mi Lukem Yufala, Vanuatu (+36 spots from 2014)
Why They Lost: Vanuatu came out of the gates with their foot on the gas, but when their rivals from the Solomon Islands struck back in the 19th minute, the pressure to equalize for a point in their first match begat a number of ill-advised long range shots and poorly taken corners. Despite only losing 1-0 they missed a big chance and headed into games against Fiji and perennial Confederation Kings New Zealand needing a miracle.
The Kiwis certainly did their part in denying Vanuatu’s dreams of a comeback, with Chris Wood netting twice inside of 5 minutes to set the tone for New Zealand’s attack amidst the shambolic back line of Vanuatu. Though they were already eliminated from the Nations Cup semis heading into their final match, Vanuatu knew the game against Fiji would decide their fate. In a move familiar to anyone watching the “stick-with-tested-veterans” cups of the summer, coach Moise Poida (see picture right) gave the reins to consistent workhorses Dominique Fred and Fenedy Masauvakalo, who repaid that confidence with two first half goals. The team needed quite a few more to stay alive for Russia through goal differential, but after Fiji fought back to equalize, those dreams faded away. A late Brian Kaltack penalty gave his country three points to savor for the coming cold years out of competitive football. (Okay, they’re in Vanuatu, so it’s just metaphorically cold, but still…)
What We’ll Miss:
Besides that sweet, sweet dance hall beat from their highlights against New Zealand? Probably the fact that Vanuatu owes a great deal of its side to the Kaltack family. Sure, Brian scored the penalty, but his cousins Jean, Tony, and Kalfter also play for the national team and another Kaltack (Michel, whose relationship, if any, I can’t quite pin down) has been called up. Those going through Kaltack withdrawal can still check out Erakor Golden Star in the Vanuatu Premier League, their vocal fan base, seems sincerely positive about their chances this season, because once you go Kaltack, you never go Kal-back.
Oh Yeah, Who Won?
While the third place teams (Tahiti and Fiji) are still alive for the World Cup, the top two teams in each group played knock out legs for the trip to the Confederations Cup in Russia next summer.
In the first match, favorites New Zealand seemed content to let New Caledonia–particularly rampaging bull/ball distributor Bertrand Kai–keep battering their defenses until Chris Wood (him again) blasted a free kick that howled off the knuckles of reserve keeper Jelen Ixoee, eliminating the Kagus.
In the other match, hosts (and lowest ranked team in the field) Papua New Guinea continued to muscle through opposing midfielders en route to a 1-0 lead over the Solomon Islands, but a Judd Molea Olimpico corner goal left the teams level at half time. Spurred on by a raucous home crowd, the Cuscus hammered away until finally catching six Solomon Islands players ball watching on a corner kick to seal a spot in the finals to cement their Cinderella story.
With that, the final was set: hosts (and Cinderella story) Papua New Guinea versus the Real Madrid/Bayern Munich/New York Cosmos of Oceania: New Zealand’s All Whites. Okay, sure the Kiwis were short-handed (missing two critical defenders and one record setting striker), and yes they were tempering expectations after the shocking loss in the 2012 Semis, but c’mon, it’s Oceania! It’s all a formality, we know how this is going to end…right?
Not really. Papua New Guinea did what they did all tournament, using size and speed to barrel right down the gut of the All Whites (okay, there really ought to be a less racist sounding nickname for this team). They had the majority of the chances throughout the first half, and still looked imposing for much of the second. The All Whites seemed focused on their “don’t-screw-up-and-we’ll-win-on-a-counter-or-penalties” game plan, though they did have a better run when they brought on three fresh players (including top prospect Marco Rojas). New Zealand’s set pieces were nudged away time and again by a clearly tiring PNG and before long we ended up where every Confederation Final seems doomed to go: Penalty Kicks.
While New Zealand’s takers included three men at work away from the tiny island leagues, Papua New Guinea’s boys were all domestic…and so was their keeper (Ronald Warisan)…and it showed. So, despite an enervating strategy and scathing reactions from the local press, New Zealand won the OFC’s highest honor, and gets to go to Russia (lucky?).
What does this mean for us?
On the surface level for World Cup enthusiasts: New Zealand remains what it has been ever since Australia left the OFC a decade ago: the top team by a country mile, able to take a major trophy without their best athletes and despite a lackluster performance. They’ll be a team to watch against the fifth best South American side (as we just saw at the Copa America, there’s not nearly as much leeway for sides like Uruguay or Brazil as their used to be, at least as long as Ecuador remains aggressive, Peru and Paraguay remain organized and Venezuela remains lucky.)
On a deeper level for Minnesotans: the OFC’s typical style of play involves a lot more physicality, which is easier to develop when a lot of your players look like they cut their teeth on rugby pitches during their youth. The top talent from the oft-forgotten islands gravitates towards Australia, which isn’t far behind American leagues. So if you’re looking for a lock-down defensive midfielder from a less contested proving ground…well…tickets to Sydney start around $900.