Just a few short months after stunning the world with a remarkable showing at the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup, Auckland City have once again been crowned Oceania kings. It is a fifth title in succession for the New Zealanders and seventh overall. However, what the history books may not show is just how close the Navy Blues came to being dethroned in 2015.
Tournament veterans Auckland were within a spot kick of failure against compatriots and tournament debutants Team Wellington in Sunday’s final. However, Auckland survived a tense penalty shoot-out in Suva to win 4-3 after a 1-1 draw, and 120 minutes of at-times heated action.
The 12-team competition was played in Fiji over 15 days and featured eight of Oceania’s 11 Member Associations. American Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga competed in last year’s preliminary stage with Samoa’s Lupe Ole Soaga winning their way to Fiji.
It proved to be quite a tournament for debutants, with New Caledonia’s FC Gaitcha winning through to the semi-finals, in addition to fellow new boys Team Wellington. Led in attack by OFC Player of the Year Bertrand Kai, the New Caledonians hit a competition high 13 goals en route to the last four. There they pushed Auckland City to the brink before the holders prevailed with a 1-0 scoreline.
Fellow losing semi-finalists Ba carried local hopes at the business end of the tournament after Suva were eliminated in the group stage. The Men in Black lost 2-0 to Team Wellington in the second semi-final, which also proved to be a hard-fought affair. An early Michael Gwyther brace was all that separated the sides. With an impressive perfect record in the group stage, Ba provided another fillip to Fijian football as it enjoys a mini boom. Several of Ba’s starting side will now have the chance to test themselves in another high profile tournament when the FIFA U-20 World Cup kicks-off late next month.
A feature of the tournament was the high quality of the tournament, perhaps in part due to the quantity of foreign imports. Players from as far afield as Spain, Italy, Portugal and Costa Rica lined up as the status and reputation of the tournament continues to grow. "I've seen an improvement [in standard] and the amount of foreign players coming into this part of the world are also improving the skill-set of the squads overall,” said Auckland coach Ramon Tribulietx.
*Navy Blues covered in gold *All the pressure was on Auckland heading into the tournament decider. They had recently again won the New Zealand championship, while last December they carved out a niche for themselves by reaching the semi-finals at Morocco 2014, where South American champions San Lorenzo needed extra time before extinguishing the Navy Blues’ unlikely dream of a match-up against Real Madrid.
Auckland’s Portuguese striker Joao Moreira opened the scoring from the penalty spot early in the final setting up what many thought would be a predictable outcome. Marko Dordevic threatened to put the holders two-up but his header struck the crossbar and, with 11 minutes remaining, All Whites midfielder Ian Hogg lashed home an equaliser. Both sides missed one effort apiece during the shoot-out before Hogg, of all people, blazed over allowing Daewook Kim to book Auckland’s return to Japan in December. Though missing out on the silverware, Team Wellington can take a dose of solace from denying an Auckland side that had won 17 straight matches across all competitions.
Ba’s Fiji U-20 striker Saula Waqa finished as the tournament’s top goalscorer, while Auckland City’s Tamati Williams was named the best goalkeeper. Player of the tournament went to indefatigable Auckland City captain Ivan Vicelich, with the 38-year-old now looking at the possibility of a sixth appearance at the Club World Cup.