FIFA U17 World Cup: “For us winning a point is like almost winning the World Cup” - New Caledonia forward Longue Vita
The Group F match between Japan and New Caledonia at the Salt Lake Stadium, Calcutta was on. Japan had already qualified for the Round of 16 as the second team behind France in the group-stage and most importantly the result of this match wouldn’t have improved their standing in that group which also comprises Honduras.
New Caledonia had lost their two previous matches, that too by large margins, conceding a total of one dozen goals. It was a given that this would also be a one-sided routine affair. Hence the Japanese contingent had fielded their bench, resting as much as nine regulars.
Even then Japan was one up early in the first half when striker, Keito Nakamura capped his decent solo run with a searing finish into the far post to chalk up his fourth goal in this competition. Further, before the half-time whistle, Le Cagous, as the New Caledonian team is nicknamed, had two reprieves.
If Nakamura's attempt in the 35th minute would not have been headed out at the goal-line and defender, Taichi Yamasaki’s 45th-minute header hit the back of the net and not the post, New Caledonians would have been looking at the wrong side of a 3-0 score.
To be fair, the New Caledonians did get their chances of getting evens or perhaps going ahead. Defender, Jules Omei, unmarked and probably nervous of being presented an unprecedented clear sighting, shot above the bar in haste, while forward Theo Bossahard could have better utilized his second-half opportunity. All said and done it was still 0-1 to Japan.
We now pick up the narrative when the digital clock was blinking its way into the 83rd minute. The air seemed to stand still for the appointed hot minute. The raid into the Japanese back-yard had earned the New Caledonians a corner. It came sailing in; Pierre Bako flicked it onto the mix only to find midfielder and team captain, Jekob Jeno’s eager head. Once the team realized that ball had ruffled the opponent’s net, the celebrations erupted wrapping the coach Dominique Wacalie and his reserves in its wake. Not that this was their first goal in this world cup – they did score against France in their very first encounter – but a strike in the closing hours meant that the game was heading for a draw.
For the smallest nation to ever qualify for any FIFA competition and football still being an amateurish pursuit, an even score against a fancied opponent was a luxury and that too, on such a big stage.
"To get a point in a World Cup, it is as if we have won the championship," declared Longue Vita, when we caught him exclusively in the mixed zone, his voice quivering with excitement and happiness. He continued, "There was a lot of pressure on us. In earlier defeats we have let in too many goals. But we wanted to go back to New Caledonia with pride and tell our people that we have done it. I hope that those who are still younger to us will take inspiration from the outcome."
Vita himself came agonisingly close to equalizing just a few minutes prior to the goal when his low effort stretched Togo Umeda, the Japanese goalkeeper’s capabilities. Earlier the coach, Wacalie, had said in the post-match conference that, "The whole country was paralyzed for the team." Their countryman must have realized that the team may have a chance after all with Japan testing out his replacements. “The goal is received with huge feelings there," commented Wacalie.
The goal was equally welcomed by about forty-five thousand strong spectators who kept on egging the underdogs whenever Les Cagous came anywhere near to scoring opportunities. After the match ended, they reciprocated the support by throwing their jerseys into the stands and by and further regaining them with summersaults.
Wacalie, who is blessed with an affable personality, expressed his objective in this cup by saying, “We are New Caledonians, we are warriors. We are a team with a big heart. But to be in a World Cup is scary for the players and it’s difficult at this level. So far the players were distracted. Today we played a like a real team with good passes and desire to go forward.
"Before coming here, our expectations were not high, we wanted to compete and that was our main objective," added Wacalie, who is also functioning like the General Manager of the New Caledonia team.
The coach apparently had another motive to benefit from this World Cup appearance. He told us in the mixed zone that he wishes some or preferably all of his boys get any Ligue 1 club. That will give them a professional experience and help him in his greater cause.
"The New Caledonia team is completely amateur and we are trying to be professional. We are doing so by playing in the Oceanic championship leagues – the O-League. Some New Caledonia teams participate but most of the clubs are from New Zealand and they win all the time. They have more money, more facilities and are better organized. Besides if compared to the New Zealand who has a population of 4 million, New Caledonia only has 270,000 people. We are using this World Cup to attract the French Clubs. Already there are two New Caledonian national team players, César Zeoula, formerly known as César Lolohéa, and Georges Gope-Fenepej who play for Stade Lavallois, a Ligue-2 club and Amiens, Ligue -1 club respectively." More players playing in the French league will take him to his target.
"We are targeting the 2026 Men’s World Cup. We are very hopeful that we might make it. We are working with this particular generation of footballers that you saw play in the U-17 world cup has been with us for a long time. So the accent is on these players as they have a big potential and we will try to qualify for other big tournaments to shape the team."
Right now the New Caledonians, due to the absence of a national team that can represent them in international competitions and being a francophone country, have no other way than to support France. But the situation is changing. With an aim to create a strong national team, and starting from the FIFA U17 World Cup, Wacalie is confident that, “If we have an Oceanian to go to the World Cup, then all of New Caledonia will support them and not France for sure.”