New Caledonia are the champions of the Sol2023 Pacific Games men’s football competition after dashing Solomon Islands’ hopes of securing their first ever football gold medal in a dramatic penalty shootout at a packed National Stadium on Saturday.
Despite Solomon Islands enjoying the advantage of home turf, weather, and an enthusiastic crowd, New Caledonia took the lead early on with a header, courtesy of a deflection, just seven minutes into the match.
Solomon Islands managed to level the score at the half-hour mark when John Orobulu found the net.
However, Shene Welepane extended New Caledonia’s lead with a goal in the added time before the break.
The second half witnessed a fierce pursuit of goals from both teams.
Orobulu netted his second goal for Solomon Islands in the 72nd minute, bringing the score to a deadlock of 2-2 by full time.
The closely contested match then progressed to a nail-biting penalty shootout.
Although New Caledonia’s goalkeeper failed to make a save, Solomon Islands missed two critical opportunities during the shootout, sealing their fate and granting New Caledonia the gold medal, 9-8 in the shootout.
Johann Sidaner, the coach of New Caledonia, expressed his admiration for the team’s resilience, acknowledging the challenges of facing Solomon Islands at home.
“It was a tough match going up against Solomon Islands on home turf with a huge crowd. Despite the heat, we held on tight right until the end,” Sidaner said.
Solomon Islands captain Micah Lea’alafa admitted to being disappointed but recognised the unpredictable nature of football.
“I’m a little bit disappointed with the overall outcome because we were expecting to win,” he admitted. “I think we made a slow start and gave away two easy goals.”
Lea’alafa also expressed gratitude for the unwavering support from fans, despite the team falling short of expectations.
“Thank you to all the supporters, they supported the team despite the fact we did not deliver the result they wanted,” he said.
The Fiji men’s football team clinched the bronze medal on Friday, overcoming Vanuatu 4-2.
Despite an early lead by Fiji, Vanuatu responded with an equaliser and took a 2-1 lead at halftime. Undeterred, Fiji mounted a strong comeback in the second half, securing two more goals to regain the lead and ultimately securing their triumph with a fourth goal.
“The boys showed a lot of character; it’s a very hot day, to be fair,” Fiji men’s football coach Rob Sherman said.
“I’m reasonably pleased; we played well against Tahiti; we played very well against the Solomons, and perhaps that result didn’t reflect things. But it did; it happens, and today we’ve done well.
“We had a good start, a couple of lapses, and then came back strongly.”
In the rest of the rankings matches, Tahiti beat PNG to finish fifth, Tuvalu beat Northern Mariana Islands to finish ninth and Tonga beat American Samoa to finish eleventh.
By Carlos Aruafu, Pacific Games News Service