Wednesday night was what the beautiful game is all about. Vanuatu, with a population of just 200 000, brought the Oceania World Cup qualification series to life with a memorable victory over reigning regional champs New Zealand.
By Ben Coonan
Wednesday night was what the beautiful game is all about. Vanuatu, with a population of just 200 000, brought the Oceania World Cup qualification series to life with a memorable victory over reigning regional champs New Zealand. Whilst some were shocked at their stunning 4-2 victory over the All Whites on Wednesday night, many observers saw the upset result as inevitability. Vanuatu-s climb up the Oceania ladder has been nothing short of astonishing. Since Uruguayan born coach Juan Carlos Buzzetti took charge four years ago, Vanuatu have looked a changed side at all levels of competition. Buzzetti inherited a team that, upon his arrival, had crashed out of the 1998 OFC Nations Cup following losses to New Zealand and Tahiti 8-1 and 5-1 respectively. Fast-forward six years and the Vanuatuans have reversed one of the above score lines by nine goals. Wednesday-s win was not the first triumph of great note for Buzzetti-s men though. At youth level is where Vanuatu-s improvement has been most notable. At the under 17 World Championship qualifiers on the Sunshine Coast in February 2003, the Vanuatuan-s finished second in a group of six that featured Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Tonga. Testament to the new breed of player that Buzzetti is promoting in Vanuatu is the fact that four members of that highly successful under 17 squad have already graduated to the Vanuatuan national team. Three months previous at the World Youth Championship qualifiers on their home turf in Port Vila, the Vanuatuans only had a fleeting chance to shine on the world stage, but still managed to turn a few heads. In what were the first competitive internationals staged in Vanuatu for nearly ten years, the hosts drew giants Australia and Papua New Guinea in their group, needing to finish first to progress to the next stage. History will show that the Qantas Young Socceroos overcame a determined Vanuatuan side 2-0 on the opening day of the tournament, which effectively sealed the Australians path to the next stage. Most famously however, Vanuatu-s most prominent moment on Oceania-s stage was earlier this year, where a spirited Vanuatuan under 23 team pushed New Zealand all the way in a crucial qualifier in Auckland. Having out scored the Kiwis in their earlier matches, Vanuatu needed only a draw with the hosts to progress to a playoff with Australia in the next round, thus moving a step closer to a berth in the Athens Olympic Games this coming August. Unbelievably, two goals inside twenty minutes had Vanuatu leading 2-0 and the shockwaves of a potentially mammoth result were being felt around Oceania. Somewhat inevitably, New Zealand pulled a goal back on the stroke of half time, renewing the Kiwis hopes and casting a few doubts over the Vanuatuans ability to hold on to their priceless lead. When All White Shane Smeltz leveled the scoring in the early stages of the second half, the scene was set for a thrilling climax, with the New Zealanders still needing to score another to guarantee their progression to the next stage. That heart-stopping blow arrived just ten minutes later, when fellow All White Brent Fisher scored what proved to be a controversial match winner, amidst strong claims of offside from the Vanuatuan soccer punditry. The drama did not end there though. In injury time, it seemed the Vanuatuans had nabbed themselves a late equalizer, only for the linesman-s flag to intervene once more. To this day, many, if not all that were on hand at Ericsson Stadium comply that the Vanuatuans were dealt a cruel blow that day, but to Buzzetti-s credit, they have refocused themselves and Wednesday-s result will be seen by many as just reward for one of Oceania-s rising nations. With improving performances on the world stage comes improving personnel and if Australia-s soccer fans have not heard of Vanuatu-s best just yet, they are sure to learn in the coming years. Vanuatu-s prized exports and, to this day, only overseas based players in their history, are strike duo Etienne Mermer and Richard Iwai. Goal scoring hero against the All Whites Seimata Chilia has also enjoyed a brief stint with Victorian Premier League outfit Fawkner Blues and is a possibility to return to the VPL fold this season. But, it is the performances of Mermer and Iwai that have turned heads in Queensland, where their showings with Premier League club Mitchelton have earned high praise. Vanuatu-s star duo arrived in Queensland for the start of this season and at their departure for Vanuatu-s stage one qualifiers in Apia, had helped their new club to second spot on the QPL ladder in what is, astonishingly, Mitchelton-s first ever season in Queensland-s top flight. Both players feature prominently in the QPL-s goal scoring charts, Mermer especially, and have attracted no shortage of interest from the local Mitchelton community, who flock to their home ground bi-weekly to see some of the real personalities of the QPL. Elsewhere, the potential of fellow striker Jean Maleb is being heard as far as Southampton, where the youngster enjoyed trials late last year. At just 17 years old, the Shepheards marksman is causing quite a fuss, both in his homeland and abroad, as clubs the world over monitor his astounding progress. Maleb has been a prominent fixture in all of Vanuatu-s national teams, from under 17-s and under 20-s to the Olympic squad and now the senior team. In all recent qualifying campaigns (from all age groups), Maleb has netted 15 goals, much more than his nearest opponent. The latest of Maleb-s strikes came on Wednesday night when he outwitted All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen to give his side a 3-1 lead. Tonight-s clash with the Socceroos will be but another chapter in the already enthralling story that is the rise of Vanuatu. After such a historic victory, the Vanuatuans have the taste of an upset still fresh in their mouths and only a solid performance from Australia will end the World Cup dream of this tiny pacific nation.