TBT #02 – When Vanuatu ended New Zealand’s dream

The year was 2004 and Australia was hosting the OFC Nations Cup Final Tournament. Four teams qualified from the previous stage (Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Vanuatu and Fiji) to join New Zealand and Australia in a tournament where each team played every other once in a tournament held in Adelaide. The best two seeded teams were supposed to advance through the final and fight for a spot in Inter-Confederation Play-offs for 2006 FIFA World Cup.

After two rounds Vanuatu was at the bottom of the table with two losses while New Zealand was in the third position with three points behind Fiji and Australia. The predictions were denoting that the New Zealanders would beat the Ni-Van squad but that 4th June of 2004 was reserving some surprises for both teams.

The All Whites counted on players that were acting in Europe and United States while most Vanuatu players were defending local teams by that time. The only exceptions were Etienne Mermer and Richard Iwai that were playing in Mitchelton from Australia. Uruguayan Juan Carlos Buzzetti was Vanuatu’s head coach.

BEHIND (FROM LEFT TO RIGHT): Moise Poida, Larry Thompsen, Geoffrey Gete, Alphonse Qorig, Lexa Bibi and David Chilia
FRONT (FROM LEFT TO RIGHT): Seimata Chilia, Fredy Vava, Graham Demas, Jean Maleb and Tom Manses

Vanuatu came up to the pitch with a very defensive team using Lexa Bibi as sweeper. “Carlos (head coach) told us in the room to not create corners and free kicks. Our defense was really down just after the penalty box to not allow them to penetrate ]…] Our gameplan was defense down and then counter attack if we regain possession” said Moise Poida.

The biggest priority was the defense but Vanuatu still needed to make something in the attack if they really wanted to keep themselves alive in the tournament once they had lost to Fiji and Solomon Islands before facing New Zealand. We were promised money if we win New Zealand […] We were hungry to beat All Whites to get paid” stated Poida.

Vanuatu opened the scoreboard at the 37th minute with a goal scored by legendary Seitama Chilia and the first half ended 1-0 to them. A big shock for All Whites that were in need of winning this match. Despite the loss in the first half it was not supposed to be a big problem for them once New Zealand had some good players like Ryan Nelsen, Ivan Vicelich, Mark Paston, Tony Lochhead and Leo Bertos.

They knew the importance of beating Vanuatu to keep themselves alive to fight for a spot in the final. All Whites’ coach Mich Waitt placed Vaughan Coveny and Shane Smeltz in pitch to replace Michael Wilson and Aaran Lines respectively.

Lorry Thompsen (Vanuatu) being marked by Rupesh Puna

The substitutions had an immediate effect with Coveny scoring a goal to tie the game at 1-1. New Zealand did not have time to celebrate this goal because Lexa Bibi put Vanuatu ahead again three minutes later and Jean Maleb scored the third for Vanuatu. All Whites scored again with Vaughan Coveny. This goal made him tie with Steve Sumner as New Zealand National Football Team all time topscorer with 22 goals but it was not enough to lead All Whites to a turnaround.

Vanuatu also had the opportunity to net a fourth goal with Alphonse Qorig. Vanuatu won by 4-2 after the final whistle. It was their only win in that tournament.

Vanuatu players emotioned after the final whistle

Vanuatu strategy based on defense and counter attacking was perfect that day “We caught them in counter attack situations in our four goals” stated Seitama Chilia. “It was a tough game. I can not believe that we made it. Everyone was hungry to play against the All Whites.” said Fredy Vava.

“It was the best moment of Vanuatu’s football history.” asserted Fredy Vava. Vanuatu National Team ended in the last position in the tournament but they really played at good level losing matches by tight scores and beating New Zealand. “We won that game not because we were better than New Zealand, but we were more motivated to win” said Poida.

New Zealand won Tahiti and Fiji in the further matches but they were eliminated in this round with nine points in five matches, standing behind Australia (13 points) and Solomon Islands (10 points). This unexpected loss to Vanuatu smashed the All Whites’ dream to qualify for 2006 FIFA World Cup.

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