Guest writer Richard Ewart is in Samoa for the Pacific Games, commentating on the football matches, and he gives his thoughts on the second day of men’s action.
Day two, just like day one, started on the backfield at the JS Blatter Football Complex – should it even be called that anymore? – with Tuvalu taking on multiple former champions Tahiti. And as a colleague of mine famously said it was “déjà vu all over again”.
By: Richard Ewart in Samoa.
Just as against the Solomon Islands, tiny Tuvalu had a chance to open the scoring against their big brothers from French Polynesia, but they blew it, and there were no second chances. The Tahitians went on to rattle in seven goals, captain and record goalscorer Teaonui Tehau adding a hat trick to his tally. So another big loss for the OFC outsiders, or was it a minor victory? After all seven goals is six fewer than 13!
Next up another uneven struggle, and not just on paper, as American Samoa tackled Fiji. Coach Christophe Gamel made ten changes to his starting line-up, with only the captain Zibraaz Sahib required to back up from the hard-fought win over Tahiti in round one. So that meant superstar Roy Krishna started on the bench, as did American Samoa’s own celebrity player, Jaiyah Saelua, and sadly that’s where they stayed, with neither putting in an appearance. No doubt Jaiyah would have added to the entertainment value, but Krishna was simply not needed, as the young striker, Tito Vodowaqa, helped himself to four goals, ably assisted by Rakula and Wasasala with two apiece, and a late strike from the impressive substitute Setareki Hughes made it 9-0 at the final whistle. The team from the other side of the dateline rarely threatened. Correction, they never threatened. But it was worth the entry price just to enjoy the many facial expressions of goalkeeper Nicky Salapu. Known forever as the man who shipped 31 goals against Australia back in 2001, he’s still playing at the age of 38, passionate about the game, and passionate about trying to instil some order and discipline into his teammates, most of whom are half his age.
- READ MORE: INTERVIEW: American Samoa’s Nicky Salapu and Jaiyah Saelua on their love of the game
- READ MORE: The Pacific Games Day 1: Raining, and raining goals
And so to a clash of the big guns, with the Solomon Islands taking on the reigning champions New Caledonia who are out to make it four gold medals in a row. Could some Dutch guile instilled by Johan Cruyff’s World Cup buddy, Wim Rijsbergen, outwit the cunning French contingent, captained by one of the greats of Pacific football, Bertrand Kai? Well for most of the first half, the answer was no. To my eyes the Solomons had the better of it, and only a couple of good saves from Rocky Nyikeine, and some profligacy in front of goal kept the score at nil-nil. Then as so often happens in these circumstances, New Caledonia grabbed the lead in first-half overtime through their big number nine, Jean-Phillippe Saiko, who plays his club football for Neuville in France. However, the undoubted highlight of the first 45 was as bad a display of refereeing as you’re ever likely to see. I am not entirely sure the official from PNG actually knew the rules. And don’t just take my word for it, because one of the rival coaches watching on was equally appalled. Most notably the referee failed to award even a free kick after a brutal challenge on Solomon Islands Haddis Aengari that forced Rijsbergen into making an early substitution.
The second half was a more even contest, with Les Cagous containing the Bonitos as they laboured away searching for an opening, and at least a draw. But time after time the door was shut in their faces, and it was locked and bolted when Saiko popped up again in added time to take advantage of a defensive mix up and seal a 2-0 win. The vibe that I am getting at the stadium is that New Caledonia are favourites for yet another gold, but I am not so sure.
And I am not sure about the young New Zealand side either. They found host nation Samoa a tougher nut to crack after the 13-0 drubbing of Tonga in round one. Captain Logan Rogerson is a class apart from his team-mates, and added two more goals to his tally, which stands at seven, and then didn’t even appear for the second half. Goals from Akers, Tupilu and Clark put the young All-Whites five goals up with 12 minutes to go, but the highlight of the day was Samoa’s opening goal of the tournament. Andrew Mobberly was his team’s most creative player and it was his precision pass that caught the big Kiwi defender Billy Jones on the backfoot and allowed Vito Laloata to sneak around him and get his shot away. Keeper Cameron Brown who’d been a spectator for most of the match was unsighted I’d say and dived too late to prevent Laloata’s moment of glory. So it finished 5-1 but we’ll only know how good this young New Zealand side really are when they come up against Vanuatu and PNG later in the tournament.
And so to the Melanesian rivals who produced the best game of the competition so far to close out the round. Vanuatu – with Bong Kalo surprisingly on the bench – flew out of the blocks against the Kapuls. And the side coached by the man from Northern Ireland, Paul Munster, nearly snared a goal when PNG keeper Ronald Warisan misjudged a high bouncing ball but his defence rescued him. Then the Papua New Guinea boys clicked into gear with the old campaigner Raymond Gunemba carving his way through the Vanuatu defence until he was hacked down on the edge of the box. And Gunemba made his opponents pay with a sumptuous free kick that crashed into the net off the underside of the bar. PNG continued to grow in confidence, with Gunemba prominent throughout. But then when Vanuatu’s keeper Mansale collided with his defender, Gunemba suffered some collateral damage, and had to leave the field. No matter, ten-man PNG went two goals up four minutes from the break, with Emmanuel Simon scoring direct from a corner with a pinpoint effort.
Gunemba did return to the action, but was eventually subbed off moments into the second half. PNG have a bye next, so that gives them four days to get their talisman back on his feet. Gunemba was replaced by Ati Kepo, and together with his brother Kolu, caused plenty of problems in the second period. Vanuatu finally brought Bong Kalo on, and his influence was obvious for the rest of the game. He created a “goal” for the Melbourne-based striker Mitch Cooper, but that was ruled out for offside. Another killer pass created an opportunity for Elkington Molivakarua, but his shot was blocked superbly by Warisan in the PNG goal. So it finished 2-0, and PNG did enough to convince me that they are genuine gold medal contenders, and certainly good enough to defeat the young New Zealand team. For Vanuatu, the task just got a whole lot harder, as they have to beat New Zealand and hope that the Kiwis do them a favour when they play PNG.
So what did we learn from round 2?
Well after chatting to Nicky Salapu and Jaiyah Saelua, I learnt they are two of the most charming people you could ever wish to meet in the football world.
Fiji coach Christophe Gamel continues to play down his team’s chances. He fears New Caledonia, but I think with Krishna back on board, it’s Les Cagous who need to be wary. So far at least, they have not impressed in the way they did in 2015 and 2011.
New Zealand remain an unknown quantity. Defeating Tonga and Samoa was the easy part of their mission. Let’s see how they go against Vanuatu next time out.
Solomon Islands and Tahiti will be on a mutual rescue mission when they meet. Nothing less than a win will the keep the gold medal hopes of either side alive.
PNG have impressed in both their games, and seen off one of their main rivals. With or without Gunemba, I believe they can make the gold medal match.
And I’ll take Samoa and American Samoa to avoid the wooden spoons. And Jaiyah to score!