New Zealand have booked a berth at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India in dramatic fashion after a last-gasp win over Papua New Guinea in the semi-finals of Oceania qualifying this evening.
With two places at the World Cup on offer to the Oceania region for the first ever time, both finalists of the OFC U-17 Championship were set to qualify for the event and Danny Hay’s New Zealand side has been joined by New Caledonia, who earned a 3-2 win over Solomon Islands in the other semi-final.
The Kiwis had to wait until almost the last moment possible to make sure of both their World Cup spot and a shot at the Oceania title, leaving it until deep into stoppage time to finally see off a determined showing from Papua New Guinea.
With the final whistle about to blow and a penalty shootout looming, substitute Oliver Whyte made a hero of himself when receiving the ball in the penalty area and placing it home to spark scenes of unbridled joy among anyone with a Kiwi connection at the Stade Mahina in Tahiti.
That winner made the final score 2-1 after New Zealand had taken an early lead in just the third minute before Papua New Guinea hit back just past the half hour and – with no extra time in the offing in these matches – appeared to have done enough to take the game to spot kicks before Whyte’s late intervention.
Grabbing the initiative early in proceedings is becoming a habit for this New Zealand side, who also did so in all three of their group matches – wins over Samoa, Solomon Islands and Fiji. The Papua New Guineans therefore must have known what was coming in the opening exchanges but gave the defending champions a helping hand anyway when Aben Pukue tried to clear a cross but succeeded only in forcing the ball into his own net.
They did manage to score at the correct end soon after the mid-half water break though, Barthy Kerobin notching the equaliser with a deflected volley to keep his side’s hopes of reaching India alive.
Brisbane Roar midfielder Oliver Duncan had again taken the captain’s armband for New Zealand but was replaced by the young man he had assumed it from for the previous match, Max Mata, just past the hour after going down injured in the Papua New Guinea box.
It looked like he would have to watch from the sidelines as the match went to penalties but Whyte had other ideas, scoring a goal that will stay with him for the rest of his career just a few moments after coming on as an 89th-minute substitute for Kingsley Sinclair.
And there was still time for a bit more late drama as Kimson Kapai received his marching orders for Papua New Guinea with the last action of the match after picking up his second yellow card.
Coach Hay was delighted to have come out on the right side of such a close content but was not surprised at how tricky Papua New Guinea made the task for his players.
“It was a really, really difficult encounter, which we knew it was going to be,” Hay said.
“We had chances to put it away a lot earlier in the second half but their goalkeeper pulled out some incredible saves. You have to take your hat off to Papua New Guinea, they really fought well and showed a lot of pride and spirit in playing for their country,” he added.
“The number one goal was qualifying for the World Cup but we now also have a final to play so that’s going to be straight into the boys’ minds as well. It wasn’t a vintage performance but it’s very difficult out here in this humidity and heat so we’re very pleased we showed so much fight and character to see it through.”
New Zealand will now take on New Caledonia in the final of the OFC U-17 Championship on Saturday 25 February from 6pm (NZT) at Stade Pater in Tahiti for the right to be crowned Oceania champions.
New Zealand 2 (Own goal 3’, Oliver Whyte 90’ + 3’)
Papua New Guinea 1 (Barthy Kerobin 34’)
New Zealand: 12. Zac Jones (GK), 2. Jordan Spain, 3. Josh Rogerson, 4. Liberato Cacace, 5. Jake Williams, 7. Elijah Just, 8. Oliver Duncan (c) (9. Max Mata 68’), 10. Willem Ebbinge (yellow card 7’) (6. Leon Van Den Hoven 46’), 13. Matthew Jones, 14. Kingsley Sinclair (16. Oliver Whyte 89’), 18. Charles Spragg
Substitutes not used: 1. Dylan Bennett (GK), 11. Matthew Conroy, 15. Ben Deeley, 17. Matthew Palmer
Coach: Danny Hay
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