BY ROMULUS HUTA
THE hosting of the 2018 OFC Under-16 Championship in Honiara over the past two weeks has brought a lot of unity among Solomon Islanders and the entire Oceania footballing community as a whole.
The tournament, which began on September 9 and ended with the grandfinal last Saturday saw a lot of goals scored across the total of 16 matches hosted at Lawson Tama Stadium.
Spectators were treated to a wealth of spectacular goals and enthralling actions since day one.
The host nation was the most outstanding team throughout the entire tournament having scored a total of 15 goals in the pool stage and another three goals in their run up to the final, conceding only one goal in the process.
The outstanding performance by the young Solomon Islands side earned the country a maiden qualification into the 2019 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Peru, alongside seven-time champions New Zealand.
This is the first time for the soccer-mad nation to qualify into any world cup in the conventional (11-aside) code, apart from the other successes in beach soccer and futsal.
The first time entry into the world cup had brought together the whole country in what can be best described as a dawn of a new era for Solomon Islands football.
New talents too have emerged during this tournament. They include the likes of latest poster boy Raphael Le’ai and team mates namely Charles Mani, Chris Satu, Stewart Qwanafia, Leon Kofana and Maxwell Keana to name a few.
These players along with the other respected unmentioned ones have stood the test of time to bring pride to the face of soccer lovers in the country despite losing out to New Zealand in the grandfinal where the winner had to be decided through a penalty kick.
Solomon Islands won 3-1 against Fiji in the semis to qualify into the final while New Zealand thrashed 4-1 to book a rematch against the hosts.
The grandfinal match last Saturday between Solomon Islands and New Zealand was the most entertaining match.
New Zealand, who were thrashed 5-0 by Solomon Islands in pool play had to make a big step in the grandfinal where they held on for a nil-all draw and the match headed directly to a penalty shootout.
Solomon Islands was first up and both teams nailed their first two kicks. However NZ goalkeeper Alex Paulsen continued his heroics by halting the third kick from defender Derick Taebo, and with New Zealand slotting their remaining kicks, they were crowned winners of their seventh straight OFC U-16 Championship title.
New Zealand coach Jose Figueira could not have been a happier man at the final whistle as a tournament that took him on a rollercoaster ride finally came to a happy conclusion.
“There is plenty to say about the match and I probably can’t find the words right now,” the elated Englishman said.
“I said to the guys on the side before that final penalty, we’ve probably experienced everything there is to experience in what is an absolutely incredible place for football in this region.
“It was important to get the win and I think we have got to thank our goalkeeper right at the end there for coming up big.”
For Solomon Islands coach Stanley Waita it wasn’t the result he wanted, but he could do nothing but congratulate his charges for giving the game, and the tournament, their all.
“I’m very proud of my boys, they did well. They were a bit sleepy in the first half and the second half we came up strong and should have finished it in the 91st minute, but unfortunately we didn’t take our chance.
“This young side, they have a bright future and we expect a lot from them, they’ll keep improving.”
Despite losing 5-4 in the grandfinal, Solomon Islands didn’t go home empty handed with the side doing well in the individual awards, as well as picking up the team award for Fairplay.
Raphael Le’ai’s eight goals earned him the Golden Boot, while he also went home with the Golden Ball for the most outstanding player of the tournament.
New Zealand goalkeeper Alex Paulsen collected the Golden Gloves award, largely based on his impressive performance in the final.