Oceania’s eleven

Double-figure drubbings are out (almost) and shocks are in. Matthew Hall reports on how the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu upset the odds in the South Pacific qualifiers

The cliche says that if it’s 31-0 then this must be the Oceania Football Confederation’s World Cup qual­ifying competition but, thankfully, OFC took heed of record-breaking scores four years ago. A three-phase tournament now saves teams such as American Samoa the embarrassment of massive drubbings against Australia – in 2001, the Samoans actually did watch 31 goals go past their goalkeeper.

This time around, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Tahiti qualified from an earlier tournament to meet seeded Australia and New Zealand in a week-long competition in wintery Adelaide. In the South Pacific’s version of Euro 2004, Tahiti took the drub­bings (New Zealand beat them 10-0) but weren’t necessarily the competition’s fall guys. More on that later.

First, some perspective: the combined weekly in­come of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, Oceania’s two biggest stars, far outstrips Vanuatu’s entire annual foot­ball budget. In recent years, Vanuatu have come close to upsets against both Australia and New Zealand but run their national programme entirely on a US$250,000 [£135,000] grant from FIFA.

National coach Carlos Buzzetti, who lived in Ade­laide for 25 years before taking on his current job, called on favours from old friends to ensure his team could compete. Adelaide adopted Buzzetti’s squad. Restaurants offered free meals and suburban soccer clubs hosted barbecues. Australia stayed in an award-winning five-star hotel while Vanuatu’s World Cup digs were a motel offering cut-price rates.

Another hurdle for the islanders was Adelaide’s cold weather, not unusual for those Australians who play in Europe but a shock to Pacific residents. “My play­ers wanted to stay in in bed all week be­cause they didn’t want to go outside in the cold,” said Buzzetti.

OFC’s decision to play a preliminary tournament to weed out the weaker nations ironically proved a further financial burden on the region’s poorer teams.“The qualifying tournament in Samoa in early May was a killer,” said Buzzetti. “Everything in Samoa was in US dollars and it cost us three times more than it usually does. We had to ask whether we could afford to compete in Adelaide.”

Buzzetti’s shoestring side are amateur but training schedules were helped by local economics – no jobs meant most players could practise every day of the week. “I only have three players working and they may­be make AUS$150 [£58] a month doing odd jobs,” Buzzetti said. “We have one car between us and some of my players walk six kilometres to training. If I call for training twice a day then, well, you can imagine!”

The ever-improving island nations made an otherwise tepid tournament interesting. Australia saw off New Zealand 1-0 in a turgid opener – played in front of just 11,000 spectators with no television coverage. Max Vieri, younger brother of Italy’s Christian, made his debut for the Socceroos. Verdict: there are many reasons his brother has enjoyed more success.

Australia had relative pedigree (Tim Cahill and Parma’s Mark Bresciano turned out for the Socceroos) but it was Buzzetti’s boys who set the tournament alight with a convincing 4-2 win over New Zealand. The Kiwis, who were dire throughout, complained about a draw which paired them with Australia first up. Yet the Aussies had come off tough warm-ups against Turkey while the All Whites had not played since October.

Things got worse for New Zealand. The tournament’s purpose was to find the top two sides, decided by a mini-league, to play off later this year for a place at the 2005 Confederations Cup and again next year to find who will meet South America’s fifth-placed side and qualify for Germany 2006.

Australia cruised into first place. The Solomons stole the second qualification spot with a 2-2 draw against the Aus­tralians. They will now play the Soc­ceroos four times over the next 12 months. Kiwis claimed a Scandinavian-like conspiracy but the reality was that Australia’s defence, shorn of Rangers captain Craig Moore and Crystal Palace’s Tony Popovic, was appalling.

The streets of Honiara, the Solo­mons’ capital, were packed with celebrating fans. Soccer is the number one sport in the country, something only Tahiti can claim in the region. Kewell and Viduka now face a more interesting World Cup schedule than any of their club mates.

It remains a moot point whether Kewell will make the trip, however. He’s told the Aus­tralian Soccer Association that an ankle injury prevents him from travelling to matches held more than a five-hour flight from Anfield. He is, though, ex­pected to join Liverpool on their pre-season tour of the US.

From WSC 210 August 2004. What was happening this month