Tahiti will get their long awaited return to the FIFA U-20 World Cup after beating Solomon Islands 3-1 at Stade Pater on Thursday to claim one of two berths for Poland 2019.
Joining them will be New Zealand whose 2-1 victory over New Caledonia secured their berth in Poland.
New Zealand had to put in a massive shift against New Caledonia to secure their place after the Francophones took the lead through a Max Mata own goal.
New Zealand coach Des Buckingham gave credit to his players for having the resolve to storm back from a goal down.
“I think it was a really tough game, New Caledonia have given as good as they got and have been a really tough opponent and we fully expected that,” Buckingham said.
“It was the first time in the tournament that we got a goal down, we had to chase the game, full credit to the players to be one nil down to come back.
“Maybe the performance isn’t pretty as it could have been but to get the result and put themselves in the World Cup next year is a fantastic achievement for the players and for the country.”
It could have easily been a different story however with New Caledonia dominating their favoured opponents for much of the encounter.
New Zealand started strong with a couple of early forays into their opponent’s final third to test goalkeeper Une Kecine’s reflexes. Leon Van den Hoven kept the ball moving up the right flank for the defending champions, while Matt Conroy and Mata had a couple of chances either saved or just off-target.
New Caledonia were most threatening on the counter-attack with Paul Gope-Fenepej using his pace to put New Zealand on the back foot. Struggling to keep up with the speed of the attack, New Zealand were at times forced to commit fouls to allow the backline to get back and reset.
Van den Hoven and Trevor Zwetsloot’s cautions in the 27th and 33rd minutes were the first of eight yellow cards dished out to the Kiwis during the match as they got quite physical at times with their opponents. New Caledonia aren’t ones to shy away from a challenge either, with a few flying tackles and shirt tugs of their own earning the ire of referee Kader Zitouni.
The break for New Caledonia finally came in the 41st minute of the match when a corner delivery was headed away from the target at the near post only to come of Mata for an opening own goal.
Taking a one goal lead into the break, New Caledonia could have been expected to sit back and defend for the second half but it’s not their style so they kept pushing for a second. They came close several times but struggled with getting their final touch on target, and when it was the ball seemed to gravitate straight to goalkeeper Cameron Brown.
A shirt pull from Kiam Wanesse in the 54th minute saw him earn a yellow card and it also led to a free kick he’d come to regret conceding as Mata met the delivery from first half substitute Willem Ebbinge and heading it past Kecine.
The introduction of Ebbinge proved an inspired tactic by coach Des Buckingham with the midfielder going on to add to that assist with a goal of his own. Kecine blocked the initial shot as Ebbinge broke past the New Caledonia back line, but he leaped on the loose ball to put it past the keeper with his second chance.
New Caledonia never gave up but despite some excellent chances were just unable to break down their opponent. With the clock running down Gope-Fenepej, who’d had an otherwise decent outing, lost the plot and kicked the ball out of Brown’s hands earning himself a direct red in the final minute of the match.
It was an unpleasant end to what had otherwise been a truly memorable performance from the New Caledonians who pushed New Zealand to their limits.
“Of course it’s a disappointing result especially when we managed to control our adversary,” a dejected Felix Tagawa said.
The second semi-final begin on the front foot as both teams went searching for an early goal at Stade Pater in front of a packed grand stand to try and gain an advantage.
Solomon Islands started strongly in the opening first half as Tahiti goalkeeper Moana Pito had to make some saves at full stretch to deny the Melanesians.
The hosts created some half chances in the opening exchanges but they too struggled to break down their opponents in the final third.
Seconds away from half-time Tahiti had their chance and captain Roonui Tehau capitalised on it, heading home to make it 1-0 for Tahiti at the break.
Rainui Nordman and Eddy Kaspard scored inside the space of four minutes late in the second half to put the game out of reach for the Solomon Islanders.
Ali Mekawir scored a consolation goal with a ball placed neatly through the legs of Pito, but once again it was sorrow for the Solomon Islands as they found themselves knocked out in the semi-finals and missing out on their chance at a football world cup once more.
Tahiti coach Bruno Tehaamoana said his players’ deserved the victory and a place in the World Cup based on their overall effort.
“I think the honour goes to the players. They applied everything we asked of them and it’s for that reason that tonight’s victory is so beautiful, because of them,” he said.
“All the months they’ve put in, all the sacrifices they’ve made I congratulate them for their efforts, they deserve this.
“It’s true that we’ve had other generations which have come before, but this one definitely deserves its place among them.”
Solomon Islands coach Batram Suri insisted that the turning point was the goal in the first half.
“I think when we conceded the first goal seconds before half-time, we gave away an easy goal,” he said.
“The boys gave their best in the second half, we pushed so many players up the pitch which left spaces in defence that Tahiti capitalised on.
“Congratulations to Tahiti for making it to the World Cup and I believe our day will come one day.”
Although as semi-final winners New Zealand and Tahiti have qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019, they still have the regional title to play for in Saturday’s final at Stade Pater.