BY ROMULUS HUTA
A now or never circumstance faces the national under-16 side as they are about to take on Fiji in the first semi-final clash of the OFC Under-16 Championship this Wednesday.
The match is set for a 10am kick off at Lawson Tama Stadium and this encounter holds a lot of significance more than any of their run-in in this tournament. A victory would see Solomon Islands qualifying for the 2019 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Peru.
Solomon Islands made their way into the semi-final following a clean sweep against opponents in Group A which comprises New Zealand, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Vanuatu.
The young side kept a clean sheet in all three pool matches and hauled in an overwhelming 15 goals in the process – five apiece against each of their opponents. The team’s poster boy Raphael Le’ai ‘Rafa’ was solely responsible for seven of them, putting himself into strong contention for the golden boot award.
With such an amazing run, the question we can always ask ourselves is, can the under-16 soccer boys break the curse and get Solomon Islands to its maiden world cup qualification in the conventional (11-asisde) code, after having excelled in the other two abbreviated forms, namely beach soccer and futsal? This question will be answered after the final whistle of the encounter against Fiji.
However, let’s take a look back at previous moments where Solomon Islands have gotten closer to qualifying to the world cup since FIFA’s approval of two qualification spots for Oceania toward the under-17 and the under-20 world cups.
The two-spot opportunity was approved in March 2015 by FIFA and was first applied during the 2016 OFC Under-20 Championship and the 2017 OFC Under-17 Championship, respectively.
2017 OFC Under-17 Championship
Doubled as a qualifier for the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India, the tournament was held in Tahiti between 11–24 February 2017. Solomon Islands was drawn in Pool B with New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa. The campaign got underway with a one-all draw against Fiji with the next one succumbing to a 2-1 loss against New Zealand. Solomon Islands had to come away with a 12-0 thrashing of Samoa to edge past Fiji on goal differences to join the junior All Whites in the semis. With a game away from the tournament in India, the young lads’ hopes ended in shattered dreams when they lost 3-2 against New Caledonia in the semis. New Caledonia and tournament winner New Zealand went on to represent Oceania.
2016 OFC Under-20 Championship
The 2016 OFC U-20 Championship was the 21st edition of the OFC U-20 Championship and Vanuatu becomes the host of the event that runs from 3–17 September. Two winners from this tournament would go on to represent Oceania in the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea. Solomon Islands started their campaign in Pool B against New Zealand, Tahiti and Cook Islands. The national youth side went in to a 2-all draw in their first match against Tahiti and later cruised to a 3-0 thrashing of Cook Islands in the second fixture. The final pool game was against New Zealand and it ended in a 0-0 draw which had them qualified into the semifinals. Solomon Islands came up against Vanuatu in the semifinals but lost 2-1 and missed out on qualification for South Korea despite leading the match earlier on.
2018 OFC Under-19 Championship
This edition sprouts yet another sad outcome for a much determined Batram Suri-coached under-19 side. For this tournament, the age category was changed to under-19 instead of the formerly called Under-20. The changes were made in order to allow the winner of the competition plenty of time for preparation and player development for upcoming World Cups at Under 20 level. Hosted in Tahiti from August 5 to 18 in Tahiti, the two winners of the tournament would then qualify for the 2019 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Poland. Solomon Islands was placed in Group B along with New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu. The national reps made a bright start to their campaign with a 3-2 narrow victory over New Caledonia and followed by a 1-0 win over Fiji in the second match. The final match was against Vanuatu and Solomon Islands came away with another 1-0 victory which saw them shot to the top of the group on nine points at the back of an amazing clean sweep. Solomon Islands went up against the hosts Tahiti and lost 3-1 in the semifinals, missing out on what supposed to be another maiden qualification into the world cup in the conventional (11-aside) code. Tahiti and New Zealand ended up in the final and will represent Oceania in next year’s under-20 world cup.
Prior to these above events when there is only one qualification spot on offer for Oceania, Solomon Islands also went close on a numerous occasions but always fell short toward the end of their campaigns.
In the meantime, the wounds absorbed from the recent under-19 event in Tahiti is still fresh among football fans in Solomon Islands and renewed hopes are being entrusted onto shoulders of the young guns representing the country in the under-16 championship currently underway in Honiara.
Fiji under-16 side
Fiji currently stands in the way of Solomon Islands on their quest for a maiden qualification for the 2019 FIFA Under-17 World Cup.
Unlike Solomon Islands, the Yogendra Dutt-coached side have had to dig deeper in their pool B campaign to eventually qualify alongside Tahiti for the semifinals.
A 1-0 victory over New Caledonia in the final pool play saw them clinched a second place finish behind Tahiti on the table tally.
Fiji had a shaky start on their campaign where they had to come back from a two-goal deficit to overcome Samoa 3-2 in their opening match with their winning goal coming through a penalty kick.
They lost their second match 3-0 against Tahiti before winning their final match to guarantee them a place in the semis.
In any competition, the semifinal stage often comes with a completely different atmosphere unlike the pool stage and tomorrow’s midmorning encounter will be an interesting to look out for.
Solomon Islands will be heavily relying on advantage they have with home support to get them to the final.
Can the under-16 boys break the curse and give Solomon Islands its maiden world cup qualification in the conventional (11-aside) code?