Vanuatu aim to repeat historic upset win against All Whites at OFC Nations Cup

Twenty years after causing the biggest upset in Oceania football history by beating the All Whites in the 2004 OFC Nations Cup, Vanuatu hope to topple New Zealand again in front of their passionate home fans on Friday.

The 4-2 victory at Coopers Stadium in Adelaide did not earn Vanuatu any medals or passage to a major tournament, but speaking to the heroes of 2004, it is clear this win was a defining moment for football in their country and the players involved.

The face of captain David Chilia lights up like a candle when asked about that glorious night.

“We played from our hearts to play ourselves in the history books of Vanuatu,” says the former goalkeeper.

His cousin, Seimata Chilia, says the match was the biggest moment in 90 years of Vanuatu football, and the squad of local club players have been dining out on their feats for two decades.

“We always talk about that match; we will never forget that time. It is our history. After the game we all cried and gave thanks to the Lord,” Chilia said.

Main photo: Seimata Chilia (left) David Chilia … ‘we always talk about that match.’ Photo credit: OFC Media / Phototek.

While the Vanuatu veterans are eager to relive the memories of Coopers Stadium, the New Zealand captain at the time Ryan Nelsen would rather forget the match.

He recalls how the 2004 OFC Nations Cup was marred by internal power struggles within the management team that included coach Mick Waitt, assistant coach Ricki Herbert and technical director Paul Smalley, but is quick to point out that they were simply beaten by a better team on the night.

“They bullied us; they were more aggressive, quicker, stronger and mentally tougher. That was a deserved result, they were a really good team,” says Nelsen, who still can’t believe how the team got so distracted by off-field dramas.

“Everyone was taking sides in the coaching staff and management team, and it filtered down to the players, and the atmosphere just became toxic.

“But that takes nothing away from Vanuatu. We turned up with a pretty bad mindset.

“We were naïve, and Vanuatu just ran over us.”

Ryan Nelson … ‘They bullied us; they were more aggressive, quicker, stronger and mentally tougher.’

While New Zealand had their own demons, the club players from Port Villa and surrounding villages had many other challenges to deal with before their moment of glory.

The amateurs from Vanuatu embarked on a month-long tour to first play the qualifying group in Samoa and immediately continued on to Adelaide for the OFC Nations Cup.

“It was really hot in Samoa and then we flew straight into the Adelaide winter, and we had not been given any gear, so we were very cold,” Seimata Chilia said.

Vanuatu head coach Juan Carlos Bazzetti was an Adelaide local who appealed to the local community.

“Our coach, Buzzetti, spoke to the media and asked if anyone wanted to support the Vanuatu team. So many Adelaide companies and people gave us all kinds of things — clothes, long coats and food,” says the midfielder, who adds that most of the players were still using the same boots they wore at the Pacific Games a year earlier.

Juan Carlos Buzetti.

Buzzetti was famous for his booming voice and passion for the game, but his excitement earned him a red card after only 15 minutes in the New Zealand game.

“We got together and said let’s just stick to the game plan the coach had taught us and do what he wanted,” recalls Chilia, saying the dismissal did little to deter the Vanuatu coach.

“He was sitting in the grandstand, but he was still shouting and coaching us, he never stopped,” says Chilla, who scored the opening goal after 37 minutes.

“We got a huge boost from that goal, and the coach was shouting even more after that.”

Captain David Chilia remembers how the All Whites threw the kitchen sink at Vanuatu after the break, bringing on their record goal-scorer Vaughan Coveny, who quickly headed home the equaliser.

“But even then, they equalised, we just kept fighting, and with New Zealand pushing we could hit them on the break,” the former captain says.

The Vanuatu tactics worked a treat, and the lightning-fast islanders hit the Kiwis with three deadly counterattacks, finished by Lexa Bibi, Victor Maleb and Alphoso Qorig.

Maleb had predicted he would score after he was denied a goal against New Zealand in the Olympic qualifying matches in Auckland a year earlier.

“Victor promised the team he would deliver the goal he owed us, and he scored our third,” says Chilia, who remembers how shocked the New Zealanders were after the final whistle.

“They were totally surprised. They were expecting to beat us and play Australia in the play-offs, but they realised immediately they were out.”

Incredibly, the most famous match in the country’s history was never shown on Vanuatu television, which only planned to show their match against Australia.

David Chilia (left) and Seimata Chilia … happy memories of the 2004 upset win. Photo credit: OFC Media / Phototek.

David Chilia says the players received a VHS tape of the game but most copies were lost in a cyclone and the last remaining tape is damaged.

“The match is not on YouTube, so our children and grandchildren can never watch that famous match.”

The lack of television coverage only adds to the mystique surrounding their famous night and the team returned to a hero’s welcome in Port Vila.

“When we came back some of us stopped playing and started coaching and started development programmes to bring through the new players,” says the former captain, who coaches Premier League outfit Tupiji Imeri, with cousin Seimata as his assistant.

“At training, I tell the young players, you are lucky you have two heroes in the club. One scored against New Zealand, and one was the captain.”

While the Vanuatu players became living legends, their opponents were slammed by the international football media with their global reputation in tatters.

“We hit rock bottom and then imploded,” former captain Nelsen lamented.

“It is something most teams have to go through before you have that metamorphose to climb and rise up. From that point, we started building and regrouped the team and found a way up to peak in 2010,” said Nelsen, referring to the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, where New Zealand wrote their own history by remaining unbeaten after draws with Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay.

Nelsen says the debacle of Adelaide was a painful lesson for the team and himself as captain, which spurred him on to never let outside dramas impact his team the way it had in 2004.

“I think you have to go through those kinds of situations to learn and to grow. In hindsight, you say, wow, how did we let this affect us the way it did?

“Still, that does not take away from the fact that Vanuatu were just fantastic that night.”

In the 2024 OFC Nations Cup, Vanuatu hope to repeat the upset and the Chilia cousins think the current crop is in a far better position, with players like Australia A-League champion Brian Kaltak, professional support around the team and a full house of passionate fans behind them at VFF Freshwater Stadium.

“In 2004, we were all local boys and we had nothing. This time, the team has players playing professionally and they have everything,” says David Chilia.

“So, if we could beat New Zealand in Adelaide without any supporters, they must believe they can beat New Zealand in their own country in front of a full stadium.”

Jared Clark.

One player in the Vanuatu line-up who has been eagerly awaiting the 2004 replay is defender Jared Clark.

Clark grew up in Adelaide and was on the sidelines as a six-year-old watching his mother’s native country defeat New Zealand.

“I can’t remember too much detail from the match, but that I was there with mum and dad and me running around the field and cheering,” says Clark, who plays for FC Beograd in the South Australian Premier League.

The 26-year-old defender has only recently been able to acquire a Vanuatu passport due to the relaxation of rules around dual citizenship and says he loves representing his mother’s side of the family.

“When dual citizenship became available, I jumped on the opportunity.”

Clark got his first taste of playing on home turf in the opening match of the OFC Nations Cup against the Solomon Islands and he was blown away by the passion in the stands.

“It was crazy, a huge crowd and every time we touched the ball, you could hear them screaming. It was the biggest crowd I ever played for and an amazing experience.”

Clark says he can’t wait to play New Zealand front of that same crowd on Friday.

“After being at that match 20 years ago, it is pretty special that it now comes full circle, especially at home in Port Vila.”


We are grateful for the help of OFC Media in providing this story.

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Game to be played on Friday June 21, 2024

OFC Men’s Nations Cup

New Zealand v Vanuatu
VFF Fresh Water Stadium, Port Vila, 4pm (NZT)

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