Articles related to OCEANIA 2006 WC qualifiers:
Preview Apr 25, 2004
Preview May 27, 2004
Update May 30, 2004
Update Jun 2, 2004
Update Jun 4, 2004
Update Jun 6, 2004
Wrap-up Jun 28, 2004
Update Sep 4, 2005
Wrap-up Sep 19, 2005
Preview Nov 8, 2005
Update Nov 13, 2005
Update Nov 16, 2005
Wrap-up: OFC qualifiers, Stage 2 - An unforgettable week concludes with an Oceanic tidal wave
by Paul Marcuccitti
Melbourne pop rock band "Jet" currently has a song in Australia's music charts called, "Look what you've done" a nice tune if you're a fan of the genre.
Whether by coincidence or intention (probably the former), the song was played over Hindmarsh Stadium's sound system at the conclusion of Australia's draw with the Solomon Islands, a result which enabled the Solomons to advance to the next phase of Oceania qualifiers at the expense of New Zealand.
The main lyrics in the song's chorus (which could be heard while the islanders were still celebrating on the pitch) are:
Oh look what you've done
You've made a fool of everyone
Ain't that the truth?
We knew, at the start of that evening, that the Solomons could do it but I doubt anyone really thought it would happen. But as many of the extraordinary matches at Euro 2004 have reminded us, you just never know in this game.
Naturally I'm enjoying the Euros. After devoting coverage to the Oceania Nations Cup in my own backyard (which doubled as World Cup qualifiers), it might seem like watching princes after following paupers.
But I don't see it like that. While the glamour, standard and popularity of Euro 2004 reach a scale that Oceania can't dream of, our sport provides entertainment at all levels in a way that many other sports can't. Moments of magic? There has certainly been a few of those.
Still, if you think that Oceania has received a disproportionately high amount of coverage here lately, you can now rest easy. The Oceania World Cup qualifiers are virtually over despite the fact that it's a full two years until the Germany 2006 finals. There are only two Oceania teams left in the race for the finals and only four more qualifying matches that will involve teams from this region (and all of them will be played late next year). The first two will be between Australia and the Solomon Islands and, from there, the winner will play home-and-away against the team that finishes 5th in South America. Until then, Oceania is in World Cup hibernation.
The week of Stage 2 qualifiers in my native Adelaide was a tremendous experience. My application for a media pass was approved by the Australian Soccer Association deserved recognition for a top website. (Not that I'm biased of course.) I'd like to think I made full use of the privilege. (And, by the way, I can't speak highly enough about the ASA's "customer service" throughout the tournament.)
The night before the first match, some political connections (gosh they're handy sometimes) got me into a reception for the Oceania qualifiers. I attended with South Australia's Attorney-General and his young soccer playing son. We were a little too early so the Attorney's son pulled out an undersized soccer ball and the three of us proceeded to kick it around the room before the first guests (the Vanuatu team!) arrived.
Later, as the room filled up, I tried to help the lad get his ball autographed by members of the Australian team. A few of them seemed in deep conversation so I said, "we'll try in a few minutes". But Aussie FIFA referee Mark Shield was standing nearby and, without prompting, whisked the Attorney's son towards the Socceroos and facilitated the signing of the ball. Nice one, Mark. Who said refs were bad guys?
The reception gave me a great opportunity to chat to players and officials in a relaxed atmosphere. I had a particularly good conversation with some of the Vanuatu players they became Adelaide's adopted team after a story in our local newspaper described how little money and resources they had. The Vanuatu team was so poor that each player had come with "just one pair of boots, socks, a home and away strip, one tracksuit each, donated to them for the trip to Adelaide, and a flimsy spray jacket" and they had no clothes suitable for our wintry weather. Within a day, local clubs and businesses had made offers of clothes, meals, etc and their coach Carlos Buzzeti, who spent many years in South Australia, was extremely grateful.
Adelaide's response to the Vanuatu team showed a generous side. The downside was the response to proceedings on the pitch because, despite very low ticket prices, attendances were poor. Yes, a lot of the players on show were amateurs but consider the following: Australia's National Soccer League ceased to exist earlier this year and, until the new Australian Premier League kicks off next year, the soccer public is reduced to local leagues for live entertainment. You'd think that fans would jump at the chance to watch these matches but even Australia v New Zealand attracted just over 12,000 spectators. A few weeks earlier, Adelaide's 16,000 capacity Hindmarsh Stadium was sold out by our NSL team, Adelaide United. (Besides, even if the players from the islands were mostly amateurs, the Socceroos were mainly European-based professionals players of a standard that are rarely seen here and definitely a higher standard than the NSL.)
On one of the five days of action, Australia played at the tiny Marden venue (which hosted one game on each match day while the other two games were at Hindmarsh). That night's Hindmarsh matches were Solomon Islands v Tahiti and New Zealand v Vanuatu. As we surveyed nearly 16,000 empty seats from the media box, we joked (half seriously) that there were probably more people in the stadium with free entry (because they were officials, media, etc) than there were paying spectators. Arguably the greatest upset in Oceania history was seen by just a few hundred people.
Even some members of the media were quick to lose interest after Australia had eased past New Zealand on the opening night. In deference to journalists/commentators that were either broadcasting or meeting newspaper deadlines, I didn't sit in the media box that night and I went to overflow seats allocated in the main stand. But the box was a lot less busy throughout the rest of the week as a lot of the "mainstream" media drifted away. On the final day, the match at Marden was Tahiti v Vanuatu and, by now, neither team had any chance of progressing to the next stage. The population in the media area had dropped to a grand total of seven: a local radio commentator, a writer for the local newspaper, an Australian correspondent for the Oceania Confederation, the ASA's Media Officer, a reporter from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, yours truly and a chap called Jonathon Leese.
Now, who is Jonathon Leese? Well, he's the guy who, perhaps more than anyone else, understood what the week was all about. I'd met him around half way through the week having recognised his north-western English accent. He'd never been to Australia and came to Adelaide
wait for it
specifically to watch the Oceania qualifiers. Why? Because, as he said himself, it's the World Cup. He'd actually wanted to get to Samoa or the Solomon Islands for Stage 1 of the series. Sure he goes to watch Liverpool play at Anfield; of course he isn't missing a minute of Euro 2004. But Adelaide was hosting international football and, in many ways, it was no less important. It's nice to know that Peter Goldstein and I aren't the only freaks that are interested in (obsessed by) the World Cup's less glamorous side. (Even more encouragingly, Jonathon had read articles on this very site.)
Midway through the week, the local radio broadcaster asked Jonathon to don headphones and assist with commentary. An English accent always helps you to sound like an expert! (And that's not to say that he wasn't.)
Despite the low numbers, the media area was a lot of fun. You might think that my experiences there would be par for the course but, don't forget, this was all new for me seeing as I'm not a journalist/columnist/reporter in my regular day job. When I applied for the media pass, I never even considered the fact that I'd be able to attend the coaches' media conferences and ask questions. As I mentioned in my last update, after the Australia-Solomons match (but before his media conference), I asked Solomon Islands' coach Alan Gillett if he'd ever experienced anything more exciting in football and he replied, "No. Absolutely not." Though he slightly misquoted my question and his answer, Gillett then repeated both at the media conference and better still when I watched one of the next evening's TV news services, it was those comments that were broadcasted. Imagine what a buzz that gave me!
All of the coaches were clearly unhappy with the tournament's schedule. Way back in my Stage 2 preview, I mentioned that the format was better (for Oceania's qualifiers) this time around. But the schedule was just crazy. It required the islanders to play four games in ten days (in Stage 1) and then, a little more than a week later, those that made it to Adelaide had to play another five games in nine days.
Tahiti missed a number of good players because they couldn't leave work for the few weeks that the Stage 1 & 2 qualifiers required; Vanuatu was down to around 13 fit players by the end of the week in Adelaide; Fiji was also depleted; and even the Socceroos and All Whites had to eventually dig deep into their respective squads. There's no doubt that the quality of play had tailed off by the end of the week and you certainly couldn't blame the players for that.
After the Tahiti-Vanuatu match on the final day, Gerard Kautai (Tahiti's coach) also pointed out that his team probably wouldn't have another senior international for two years so some of his players might not play for their country again. Imagine that: your international career ending over 5000 kilometres from home on a cold afternoon in front of barely 200 (mostly neutral) spectators!
Organisationally, Oceania continues to have a disturbingly haphazard existence and no one benefits from the confederation continuing down that path. (Can you imagine UEFA deciding the formats, venues and timing of international matches at ridiculously short notice?) Yes, we have some more difficult circumstances here but it's time Oceania's soccer politicians got their heads together and came up with a sensible four year plan something flexible, for sure with a structure for the Oceania Nations Cup, the World Cup and various other tournaments. All stakeholders should be consulted, especially the coaches. Judging by what a few coaches said at various times during the week, no one asked them what they thought of the proposed schedule.
So come on Oceania, come up with a blueprint for the future. No more deciding that we'll just have a tournament in Apia/Honiara/Adelaide in a few weeks and merge two competitions while we're at it. (I have some ideas on the subject but that's another column this one is long enough.)
Now, time for the comparison between my prediction for Stage 2 and the outcome:
PREDICTION OUTCOME P Pts GD
1 Australia 1 Australia 5 13 +18
2 New Zealand 2 Solomon Islands 5 10 + 3
3 Solomon Islands 3 New Zealand 5 9 +12
4 Vanuatu 4 Fiji 5 4 - 7
5 Fiji 5 Tahiti 5 4 -22
6 Tahiti 6 Vanuatu 5 3 - 4
You may recall that I wasn't game to predict how many points each team would finish with. (Thank goodness, that would have been really embarrassing!) Mind you, I didn't do too badly. Had Tahiti not scored a last-minute winner against injury-ridden Vanuatu on the final day, I would have been spot on with positions 4, 5 and 6. And who would have predicted the Solomons over the Kiwis?
Some points of interest here: Vanuatu defeated New Zealand (and avoided being mauled by the Socceroos) but lost all its other matches and finished bottom; Tahiti escaped from last place despite being the team that suffered most at the hands of Australia (0-9 loss) and New Zealand (0-10); and the gap in points between the top three and bottom three was relatively high another statistic that underlines the size of the Solomons' achievement.
We can conclude that most of the islanders (not just the Solomons) have improved in recent years and hopefully that improvement will continue for the benefit of the whole region. However, New Zealand has fallen back into the pack. I wouldn't suggest that the All Whites' failure is a sign of long-term decline because they were under-prepared for this tournament and, as we've seen with Australia in the past, that often leads to failure.
Now, a final wrap on each team:
VANUATU might be disappointed to finish bottom but the victory over the Kiwis is the most famous in the nation's soccer history. This is definitely not the worst of the teams that came to Adelaide but the combination of injuries and three frustrating single goal losses was costly. These guys can surely get better it's a very young team and some of the players look set to move into more competitive domestic leagues. David Chilia was unforgettable; the goalkeeper of the tournament by a mile. Lexa Bule Bibi was excellent in the heart of Vanuatu's defence and teenage left back Geoffrey Lego Gete looks a real talent. We already knew a bit about the quality of Australian-based trio Seimata Chillia, Etienne Mermer and Richard Iwai, and while young striker Jean Emmanuel Maleb may be an uncut diamond, he is a diamond nonetheless.
TAHITI was very disappointing for most of Stage 2 but, as mentioned, several important players (most notably Naea Bennett and Teva Zaveroni) were unable to come to Australia and it's really impossible to say how the team would have fared had they been available. Nevertheless, it's hard to overlook the magnitude of some of Tahiti's defeats. Under pressure (against Australia and New Zealand) the Tahitians were too quick to lose composure. (The other South Pacific teams did rather better against the traditional Oceania powers.) At least they grabbed a win on the final day and that would have provided some relief after a difficult week. Key forward Felix Tegawa (who played in Australia's National Soccer League) did come to Adelaide but, without adequate support, he struggled to have an influence. Tahiti's most impressive player was left back Vincent Simon. Although he scored an own goal in the match against Australia (the type that you really wouldn't want to see replays of), he defended well and made a number of fine forward runs. Axel Temataua was probably the pick of Tahiti's midfielders and Samuel Garcia also battled hard in the middle of the park.
FIJI has certainly slipped from its traditional "third best in Oceania" spot. Like Tahiti, player availability was a bit of a problem but better news is that, like Vanuatu, the Fijians fielded a young side with potential to develop. Goal scoring was a bit of a problem for Fiji but that was not entirely the fault of oft-maligned striker Veresa Toma. While he was disappointing at times, the team also struggled to get quality balls forward. Fiji's experienced captain Esala Masi did his best but unfortunately he carried injuries throughout the week. Players of note in the Stage 2 matches included left-sided duo Thomas Vulivuli and Salesh Kumar, and midfielder Seveci Rokotakala. Like the bulk of the Fijian squad in Adelaide, they have plenty of time ahead of them and it will be interesting to see if they can help to bring Fiji back over the next few years.
NEW ZEALAND's elimination is obviously as big a story as the Solomon Islands' astonishing success. Even though I suggested that the Kiwis might be a little vulnerable in my Stage 2 preview, it was a real shock to see the extent to which they struggled against the Solomons (though they ultimately won that match) and Vanuatu. The All Whites' best two performances were their last two (the 10-0 win over Tahiti and the 2-0 win over Fiji) and that may reflect the team's lack of preparation. When asked if the team's preparation could have been better, coach Mick Waitt suggested that it just wasn't possible financially.
Irrespective of that, by New Zealand's standards, the campaign was a disaster. It's true that injury/unavailability was a problem the experienced trio of Ryan Nelsen, Simon Elliott and Aaran Lines played well but all missed a substantial amount of game time through injury. It might be some consolation that the youth in the squad could provide a brighter future. The following All Whites are aged 23 or under (and most already play their soccer abroad): defenders David Mulligan, Steven Old and Tony Lochhead; midfielders Brent Fisher, Leo Bertos and Michael Wilson; and forwards Neil Jones and Shane Smeltz. They should all be part of an improved New Zealand outfit in the next World Cup cycle.
SOLOMON ISLANDS' success has attracted a lot of hype (especially from me). But it's impossible to understate what this team has done. Remember, this is a poor country of half a million people (scattered over many islands) which has suffered great civil unrest. On the pitch, the Solomons have usually been overshadowed by traditional rival Fiji. Now, only four matches stand between the Solomons and qualification for the finals of Germany 2006. They did have some good fortune Vanuatu's win over New Zealand opened the door that seemed shut after the Solomons missed their chance to get a result against the Kiwis. And they had virtually no injury problems throughout the week so they could rely on a core group of 14 players (which included two goalkeepers). Still, they won three (Stage 2) matches against their South Pacific rivals and drew with Australia, and that should be enough to confirm their worthiness.
Unlike other very young teams that came to Adelaide, that Solomons group of 14 has plenty of experience (though they're certainly not old only Batram Suri and 'keeper Severino Aefi are over 30). I've mentioned the "fab four" a lot (Suri, Commins Menapi, Henry Fa'arodo and Alick Maemae) but, as this team is going to be involved at the end of Oceania's qualification series, it's appropriate to go through the entire line up.
There's a real evenness about the Solomons; they had no real weaknesses (certainly not by Oceania standards). Aefi started as goalkeeper and looked good until making a costly howler against New Zealand. After that, 20 year old Felix Ray jnr took over and he showed both ability and maturity. The defence did very well: experienced Leslie Leo played mostly at right back and the splendid Mahlon Houkarawa was on the left his defensive ability and forward movement were both pleasing. The two main centre backs are both quite young: George Suri (21) and Nelson Sale Kilifa (17). They played extremely well despite some occasional (and, at their age, understandable) nervy moments. Solomons' coach Alan Gillett rates Kilifa really highly. The other defender used was the versatile Gideon Omokirio who looks comfortable anywhere across the back four.
The Solomons' midfield was equally settled. Henry Fa'arodo and Paul Kakai jnr played in the centre and Fa'arodo could equally be used up forward. It's easy to forget that he's only 21 he's so important to the team and his through balls to the forwards were delightful. At left midfield Alick Maemae is another outstanding teenage talent. Like many wide players, he drifts in and out of matches at times but his skill on the ball caused plenty of headaches for opponents. He'll surely improve even further. On the right, the Solomons had the luxury of two equally good players: Stanley Waita and Jack Samani. I couldn't split them and maybe Gillett finds it just as difficult.
Up forward of course were Commins Menapi and the South Pacific Pel้, Batram Suri. Menapi played as an out-and-out striker while Suri normally tucked in behind him. I'd say Suri was the player of the week. No such award was given out but, if one was, the only other possible candidates would be Australian midfielder Tim Cahill and Vanuatu 'keeper David Chilia. Menapi did well after a slow start to the week and his two goals against Australia will live long in the memory.
I can't wait to see these guys take Australia on again this year (for the Oceania Nations Cup) and in World Cup qualifiers next year. While the Socceroos fielded their most under-strength team (of the week) when they faced the Solomons (and had already secured passage to the next phase), they'll underestimate the islanders at their peril.
AUSTRALIA had a mixed tournament. The Socceroos did not make the mistake of two years ago (at the 2002 Oceania Nations Cup) when they relied entirely on Australian-based players. Though many were injured or unavailable, stars playing overseas were called up this time. There were enough absentees to present opportunities for fringe players some of them impressed; others didn't. Without meaning to be disrespectful to the other teams here, the Socceroos' should have aimed to win every match and not concede any goals. They failed on those fronts and also showed a worrying inability to score. OK, so they put nine past Tahiti and six past Fiji but the Tahitians were simply feeble and most of the goals against Fiji came from set pieces.
The match against the Solomons was the first ever World Cup qualifier that Australia failed to win against an Oceania rival (other than New Zealand) at home. The upside is that at least the Socceroos prepared properly and qualification for the next phase never looked in doubt.
To give you an idea of how many players were missing for the Aussies by the time they played the Solomon Islands, have a look at this probable starting eleven for a full strength Socceroo team:
Mark Schwarzer (Middlesbrough); Stan Lazaridis (Birmingham City), Craig Moore (Rangers), Tony Popovic (Crystal Palace) Lucas Neill (Blackburn Rovers); Marco Bresciano (Parma), Josip Skoko (Genclerbirligi), Tim Cahill (Millwall), Brett Emerton (Blackburn Rovers); Harry Kewell (Liverpool), Mark Viduka (Leeds United).
From that team, only Skoko, Cahill and Emerton took the field against the Solomons.
Of course, you could debate that starting team. The defence could include Tony Vidmar (Cardiff City), Kevin Muscat (Millwall) or Steve Laybutt (AA Gent) and Lazaridis could always start in midfield. The first-choice midfield might include Vince Grella (Empoli), Scott Chipperfield (FC Basel) or maybe even Danny Tiatto (released by Manchester City). And if Kewell was moved into midfield, Paul Agostino (1860 Munich) and John Aloisi (Osasuna) would be candidates to join Viduka up front.
But again, from that group, Aloisi was the only one that played in the now infamous 2-2 draw.
What does that say about the next tier of Australian players? Well, they might struggle to get more chances to play for the Socceroos in the near future. Australian-based Jade North (right back), Alex Brosque and Ahmad Elrich (both midfield) have time on their side Elrich looked especially comfortable whenever he was given a run.
Young Scottish-based defenders Adrian Madaschi (Partick Thistle) and Patrick Kisnorbo (Heart of Midlothian) had plenty of game time throughout the week. Madaschi was the better of the two but looked a little uncomfortable against the Solomons. I noted two things Kisnorbo did all week: the first was falling over when facing a forward run by Fiji's Laisiasa Gataurua (who then scored); and the second was getting himself sent off when Australia led the Solomons 2-1 and had all the momentum. Kisnorbo has just ruled himself out of Australia's team at the Olympics because he thinks it might threaten his first-team spot at Hearts. It works like this, Patrick: if you can play, they'll put you straight back in the team even if you spend a few weeks away. You'll only end up on the bench if you fall over when an amateur player runs at you, or you jeopardise your team's chances by getting yourself sent off.
Finally, a couple of Australian strikers found goals hard to come by: David Zdrillic (Aberdeen) and Max Vieri (Napoli). Zdrillic managed a late goal in the 9-0 rout of Tahiti and Vieri didn't score at all. You'd expect that pair to be behind Viduka and Kewell in Australia's pecking order but they're probably also behind Paul Agostino, John Aloisi and Mile Sterjovski.
If injury/unavailability is a big problem against better teams, Aussie coach Frank Farina will have a fair bit to think about. On the evidence of the matches in Adelaide, Australia's second tier players don't look good enough to get past a quality South American opponent late next year. And we'll only get that far if we can beat the mighty, mighty Solomon Islands the team that unleashed an Oceanic tidal wave at the end of an unforgettable week.
Now, how much is a return flight to Honiara?
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