When New Zealand referee Cory Mills blew his whistle for full time, emotional scenes unfolded, with Tongan players and officials marking a significant milestone in their football history.
There is nothing surprising about this Tongan team’s success, especially since coach Soane Mailangi insisted from the outset that his side had a clear vision and determination to create history by becoming the first-ever national team from the proud Pacific nation to win a qualifier tournament.
After delivering on his promise the U-19 Tonga team will travel to Tahiti in August to compete in their maiden OFC U-19 Championship tournament.
It was a major achievement by Mailangi’s players, who looked to be on the verge of another disappointing campaign with less than 25 minutes remaining in their fiercely-contested match against their Samoan rivals.
Knowing that a draw was enough because of their superior goal difference, Tonga went into the match as slight favourites before the pendulum swung as the impressive Samuelu Malo gave Samoa the lead with a powerful long-range free kick after just eight minutes.
Very little separated the two sides, with chances at both ends in the remainder of the first half.
Tonga came out with intent after the break, while Samoa looked to be content to slow the pace of the game and rely on counter-attacks.
As the chances were drying up, Mailangi brought on Tuia Falepapalangi to replace Viliami Tukia in the 54th minute.
The move paid off as the Tongan number 7 hit the target just 12 minutes later with a spectacular long range drive.
The team in red kept their cool for the rest of the match to hold firm and repel Samoan ambitions.
Following the final whistle an emotional Soane Mailangi couldn’t hide his delight.
“This is the moment we have been waiting for; this is history, the first time for Tonga to go through.
“This U-19 age group, we have put them through a good pathway, we trusted them and today we are the team that came top of this tournament,” the Tonga coach added.
“I’m proud of the team, proud of our technical director for his advice for us; this is the moment that we have been waiting for.
Although Tonga was unable to defeat Samoa, Mailangi said his side did exactly what it needed to win the tournament.
“For me a game is a game and it doesn’t matter if you win by miles or win by an inch, both involve winning and today we came out on top.”
The Tonga coach believes his troops will be ready for the next challenge in Tahiti.
“Even before we left Tonga to qualify for Tahiti was in us, we worked on it and now it became a reality for us: we go to the next stage in Tahiti and we will play New Zealand, Tahiti and Papua New Guinea. And I know these boys can get some more good results for Tonga,” the Tonga coach said.
Exiting the tournament was a bitter pill to swallow for a Samoa team which didn’t lose a game and only conceded a single goal, but despite the disappointment, coach Valerio Raccuglia was not looking for excuses.
“Credit to Tonga, they never stopped and obviously they got a goal after which we couldn’t create chances to get the game back on track, but they deserve it they have done better than us.”
Raccuglia’s believes his side’s inability to finish their chances throughout the entire tournament is what ultimately cost them.
“We missed a couple of chances and we should have been further ahead and I keep repeating the same thing: every goal is going to count and we go out because we scored one goal less than them.
“Obviously we are disappointed. We came here to win and it just didn’t happen. We only have us to blame, because we had the chances (but) that’s football.” In the day’s second match hosts Cook Islands and American Samoa were both eager for victory to end their campaigns on a high note.
Cook Islands looked positive from the outset with James Nand causing plenty of headaches for the American Samoa defenders during the early exchanges.
The hosts’ attacking endeavours were finally rewarded in the 37th minute courtesy of Teokotai Paio.
Four minutes after the break the result looked beyond any doubt as Cook Islands won and converted a penalty through Conroy Tiputoa, following a handball inside the American Samoa box.
However, to their credit the young America Samoans weren’t ready to lie down and they grabbed a goal back thanks to Roy Ledoux just two minutes later. Desperate to repay their loyal fans in the stands, the hosts regrouped after the goal to shore up their backline and hold out their opponents for a deserved 2-1 win, to the delight of coach Alan Taylor.
“I thought we were very good in the first half and should have scored more than one goal, the second half got scrappy because we made two substitutions for injuries and guys played out of position but I thought overall the effort was good.”
Taylor says he is happy with his side’s overall performance throughout the tournament and it was important for his players to finally be rewarded for their efforts.
“There was nothing much in the first two games and we had to get a win so the boys could believe that they can win by playing the right way through passing football and their confidence going forward will be higher because of that.
“It was important for the boys to feel the experience of winning,”
Despite another defeat, his American Samoa counterpart, Tunoa Lui, also heaped praise on his players.
“Unfortunately again today, Cook Islands capitalised on our mistakes and that cost us the game. But it was a well contested game and we played well and I take my hats off to the boys.
“The boys make mistake but they keep on fighting. We came here to win, but unfortunately we didn’t.”
Lui insists the future looks bright for football in American Samoa.
“Something to take note of is American Samoa will not just defend, you saw throughout the three games we kept on attacking.
“It’s also a very good opportunity for our seven players who will be in Tonga for the U-17, so this is a good stepping stone to them for the next tournament”, the American Samoa coach said
- OFC Media