New Caledonia is an archipelago in the southwest Pacific Ocean. It’s a French overseas territory with a population of a little over 2.6 lakh. The New Caledonia U-17 football team came to India as Group E’s favourite whipping boys. They will return home with their reputation enhanced.
When Keito Nakamura scored on seven minutes at the Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday, New Caledonia looked set for another long haul. They had just conceded their 13th goal of the tournament. Then, woodwork saved New Caledonia twice. But to their credit, the young team didn’t lose their organisation. They showed perseverance and waited for their opponents to make mistakes. Japan, after making wholesale changes to their starting line-up, didn’t look on top of their game. Concentration had been an issue. They set an off-side trap which Bernard Iwa comfortably evaded. But his finishing was hasty and poor.
But the New Caledonia colts didn’t lose heart. Egged on by close to 55,000 fans, they played better in the second half and deserved their 83rd minute equaliser. Jekob Jeno scored from a corner and wild celebrations followed. New Caledonia coach Dominique Wacalie ran down the touchline. But fourth official Claudia Umpierrez took a sympathetic view of the excesses and didn’t report the matter to referee Esther Staubli. Common sense prevailed. New Caledonia qualified from the Oceania region and they would return home with one point in their bag – a fantastic effort for a team that became a FIFA full member only in 2004.
Former UEFA president Michel Platini and Claude Simonet of the French Football Federation played a vital role for New Caledonia to get the FIFA affiliation.
They got their first FIFA-approved pitch in 2008. But the tiny nation was never short on football talent. Christian Karembeu, a Lifou-native, had a fantastic international career during which he won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euro for France. Karembeu also played for Real Madrid for three seasons, from 1997 to 2000. After taking football seriously, New Caledonia made steady progress, finishing runners-up in the 2008 and 2012 OFC Nations Cup. Their colts qualified for the U-17 World Cup this year.
“It was a great performance in front of so many people in a huge stadium. We were underdogs but it was important to be here and we made our presence felt,” Wacalie said after today’s match. He summed up New Caledonia football, saying: “(We are) really a team with a big heart. To be in a World Cup, it’s something scary for players. It’s difficult. Initially the players got distracted and we did not get the performance we wanted. But we showed real team spirit and passion. The players really showed what they are. They are all warriors, who like to fight for their goals.” Wacalie described today’s draw as an “overwhelming experience”.
New Caledonia is celebrating. The players have already started receiving messages from the friends and family. Meanwhile, Japan qualified as the Group E runners-up and will play their round of 16 game against Group F champions England in Kolkata on Tuesday. Japan just needed a draw on Saturday to progress.