Oceania sides test themselves against higher-ranked opposition

posted in: News, OFC news

By Craig Stephen

There was an encouraging draw, a heartbreaking defeat, and two chastening losses but, more importantly, two top Pacific sides gained invaluable game time against strong Asian and African sides.

While the All Whites lost to Egypt and Tunisia in Cairo, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu were competing in mini FIFA tournaments in Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia, respectively, as part of an effort by the world’s governing body to expand the international men’s game.

PNG earned a respectable 0-0 draw with the Sri Lankans in Colombo, as part of the new FIFA Series. However, the Kapuls then succumbed 4-0 to a Central African Republic side ranked only 129 in the world on Monday.

Main photo: Papua New Guinea (red strip) drew 0-0 with Sri Lanka. Photo credit: FIFA.

FIFA+ highlights: Papua New Guinea v Sri Lanka

Vanuatu meanwhile, suffered a comprehensive 6-0 reverse against 76th-ranked Guinea in Saudi Arabia at the weekend before losing a dramatic match against Brunei in midweek.

Holding the south-east Asian side 2-2 with the 90 minutes gone, Vanuatu seemed set for a credible draw before conceding in the third and final minute of injury time.

FIFA+ highlights: Vanuatu v Brunei

Jarred Clark, standing in as Vanuatu skipper for Brian Kaltak, told FIFA+ the performance against Brunei was inconsistent.

“In patches, we did well, and towards the end of the first half, we were much more composed, and that’s when we scored our (first) goal. But in the second half we dropped it a little bit, just lapses in concentration and as you saw (we conceded) three goals from set pieces,” he said.

Vanuatu … much-needed competiton on the international stage. Photo credit: Vanuatu Football Federation.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the massive volcanic eruption in Tonga in 2022 effectively brought international matches in the Pacific to a standstill for at least three years. This hiatus resulted in American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga all dropping out of the FIFA ranking list.

All three nations returned to the rankings after playing their first fixtures in over four years at the Pacific Games last year.

Papua New Guinea were well organised and worked hard to gain the draw against Sri Lanka as they continue their preparations for the Oceania Nations Cup later this year.

Vanuatu’s defeat to Guinea is no disgrace as their opponents reached the quarter-finals of the African Cup of Nations earlier this year and have the luxury of being able to draw on players from across several professional European leagues.

The Melanesians conceded three times in the opening 20 minutes, with a fourth added just five minutes before half-time.

Central Coast Mariners’ and national captain Brian Kaltak may have been unavailable, but the line-up featured Jarred Clark, who plays in South Australia, and Tom Loic of Auckland City.

FIFA+ highlights: Guinea v Vanuatu

Fiji beat Solomons in series

Back in the Pacific, Fiji took the honours in a two-legged series against Solomon Islands with a shock 2-0 win at the Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara. Solomon Islands had won the first match 2-1 in Fiji.

It wasn’t Roy Krishna who was the star for the Bula Boys but midfielder Mohammed Fataul Raheem who scored in both games.

In Honiara, Raheem scored a spectacular free-kick goal in the first half, with Krishna extending Fiji’s advantage in the 64th minute.

Coach Rob Sherman said he was disappointed with some of the decision-making by his players in the first leg, something that appeared to have been rectified in the return.

The series marked the end of Spanish coach Felipe Vega-Arango’s tenure as Solomon Islands coach after three years in charge.

“I had a good relationship with all the players and I hope for the best for them in football and life – more in life than in football because life is more important, and I hope they have good careers without injuries,” he said.

The Solomon Islands Football Federation is currently searching for a new coach to lead the senior men’s team at June’s Oceania Nations Cup in Vanuatu.

The inaugural FIFA Series also featured four-nation tournaments in Algeria and Azerbaijan, and a second event in Saudi Arabia. Future instalments are planned during the March international window on even-numbered years.

Meanwhile, an 88th free kick by Vaa Taualai secured a 1-0 win for Samoa against the Cook Islands in Tonga and a place in the Oceania Nations Cup.

Craig Stephen

Craig Stephen writes about football for a number of publications, and for RNZ. He is the author of Bombs and Boots, a book that tells how New Zealand football came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

More football stories