This week is a very special one for football fans in Vanuatu. Three years ago they had their first opportunity ever to face the world in a FIFA-sanctioned World Cup competition. Despite losing all their matches, their youth players really made Ni-Vanuatu people proud.
Vanuatu managed to book a berth in the 2017 U20 FIFA World Cup after reaching the 2016 OFC U20 Championship final with the help of some key players like Bong Kalo, Godine Tenene, Ronaldo Wilkins and Jason Thomas. However the biggest hero was Frederick Massing, who scored a goal in the 94th minute in the semifinal against New Caledonia to put them into the final match against New Zealand – “I am so happy to score the winning goal for Vanuatu,” said Massing to OFC media after the semifinal’s clash.
The support of the spectators was also very important as this tournament was held in Vanuatu. They may not have won the OFC Championship, but it was enough for something bigger, as they had the opportunity to touch the sky and be watched by people from all over the world.
Preparation for the biggest challenge in the history of football in Vanuatu was intense both on and off the pitch, and included nutritionists and doctors. Dejan Gluščević was hired to lead them on the world stage as head coach. He had previously worked with Singapore’s youth national teams, which is why he played a number of friendly matches with the team there against Singapore’s U23 and U20 national teams – “We are mirroring the World Cup by playing all the matches in a row in Singapore. Here we will be able to identify the players who will be able to play this highly demanding and intense schedule at the World Cup,” he explained before travelling with the team to Asia.“
It was very important to have a foreign head coach and good staff to help the young players deal with the excitement and anxiety of a FIFA World Cup – “I am so happy to play against big teams. I think Germany will be the hardest because they are really good at football, but I am ready for it,” Ronaldo Wilkins said in an interview a few weeks before kick-off.
The first match against Mexico raised great expectations among players, staff and fans. After conceding two goals in the first half, Vanuatu managed to return to the second half in a more organised fashion, and they scored twice to tie the game, a very impressive moment in the history of football – they really touched the sky! Bong Kalo and Ronaldo Wilkins were the ones who found the net to make the people of Ni-Van proud.
These young players saw their dreams come true, and the possibility of scoring a point in a world championship became more and more real as time passed. But Mexican defender Edson Álvarez struck the net in the 94th minute and broke their hearts. However, the defeat was a real reason for the people of Ni-Vanuatu to be proud of them: “I know they (the fans) are all very proud of us, that we struck back from 2-0 down and came so close to a draw. People watched the game in their homes, but some also came together to watch it on a big screen and they celebrated the defeat,” Bong Kalo said after the game.
It was only the first game, but everyone felt they could do more and win a game. However, the second match against Venezuela dampened their hopes after the South American side beat them 7-0. That defeat must have thwarted their dreams, but a very important person went public to support the squad: Lambert Maltock, President of the Vanuatu Football Federation (VFF) and current President of the Oceanic Football Confederation (OFC): “We already knew that South American football is very difficult, they are really good at improvising. Sometimes they do not play the plan they wanted to play, they play a new plan […] We know where we are now on the world map of football,” he explained.
The third and last meeting in the group phase would be against Germany, one of the largest countries in the world in terms of football. The Ni-Vanuatu squad were able to hold on to their opponents in the early minutes, but they saw Germany score two goals in the first half and a third at the start of the second. It could have been another heavy defeat, but the Oceanian players did not give up.
After a defensive error, the Vanuatu attack gained possession of the ball, culminating in a goal from Bong Kalo, his second in the tournament. They still had time to find the net again when Kalo scored a fine free-kick in the 77th minute, reducing the German lead to just one goal.
Although they fought hard, they did not manage a third goal to equalise. This 2-3 defeat against the European team ended their participation in the tournament. Vanuatu left the tournament with three defeats in three games, but they knew they had fulfilled their mission with dignity and had no reason to complain. “As captain, I always tell the boys before every game that we are far from home and that we need to take something back with us,” Kalo explained. You can check the video with all four goals scored by Vanuatu in the tournament by clicking here.
And they certainly took something back with them. They learned a lot at the World Cup, and that made them better as footballers and as people. Head coach Gluščević explained that their performances exceeded expectations – “We did what we went there to do […] As their teacher, I’m glad my students passed their exams,” he said at the post-tournament welcoming event.
This World Championship was also very special for Bong Kalo and Ronaldo Wilkins, and not only because they scored in the competition. Both players had the opportunity to travel abroad to prove their talent. Ronaldo Wilkins travelled to Brazil that same year to spend fifteen days in Brazil with the youth team of São Paulo FC, one of South America’s biggest football clubs, known worldwide for its good work with youth players.
On the other hand Bong Kalo went to Europe and signed with FC Ascona from Switzerland. He also had a trial with Leganés from Spain. He played for three months at the Swiss club and scored a goal in eight official matches in the fifth tier of the Swiss league system.
Many players of this U20 generation are now part of the national team at senior level and have the chance to make the people of their country proud again. We have to wait for the next chapter in this story, as the oldest players of this generation are still only 23 years old.
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