Jale Dreola (FIJ) scored the decisive spot-kick that sent Fiji to Rio 2016 after the two sides played out a 0-0 extra-time draw at the Sir Hubert Murray Stadium.
Vanuatu’s Chanel Obed is the unfortunate player who will be remembered for missing his side’s last penalty – a nervous effort that was scuffed well wide of the post.
Vanuatu only found out they would be playing in the final on the morning of the game following New Zealand’s exclusion from the competition for fielding an ineligible player in the teams’ semifinal match, which the Kiwis won 2-0.
Instead, Vanuatu were handed a 3-0 walkover and hours later were lining up against the Fijians in one of the most significant games in both sides’ histories. Neither had qualified for an Olympic Games before.
“We were preparing to play New Zealand in the morning and then we find out it’s Vanuatu, but it didn’t make any difference to us,” said Fiji hero Dreola.
“Since I was at school I used to be good at taking penalties, so I told the boys I was confident and I wanted to take it. Going to Rio was my aim.”
Vanuatu captain Brian Kaltack was left rueing numerous missed chances by his team, particularly in the first half.
“We dominated the first half and the second half – we had so many great chances. I don’t know what happened. It’s hard luck, but we accept it,” the defender said.
“It was a strange day because we had no idea what the management and staff had been doing. We were just sitting there after lunch waiting – then they told us it would be Vanuatu v Fiji in the final. So we just got our stuff and went straight to the field.”
If Vanuatu had lacked preparation time, it didn’t show as they utterly dominated the first half – with Bill Nicholls and Bong Kalo spurning clear chances.
Even Jean Kaltack, the striker who bagged 16 goals in Vanuatu’s 46-0 win against Micronesia in the pool stage, saw his finishing touch abandon him as he skewed a header wide.
The second half was a different story, as Fiji – ranked five places higher than Vanuatu in the Fifa rankings at 195 – suddenly looked the side more likely to score.
Nickel Chand’s fierce strike was saved acrobatically by impressive Vanuatu goalkeeper Selonie Iaruel, who then made an even better stop to deny Chris Wasasala with his legs.
The chances kept coming at both ends in a frantic extra-time, with Iosefo Verevou heading Fiji’s best chance just over and Jean Kaltack seeing a shot blocked in the final seconds.
But in the end, the sides who famously rattled in 84 goals between them in their recent pool matches against Micronesia could not muster a single strike after 120 minutes.
All three players to score penalties for Vanuatu were brothers – Jean, Brian and Tony Kaltack – but after Obed missed in sudden death, the stage was set for Dreola to slam home the historic winning penalty for Fiji.
Meanwhile for New Zealand, who were resounding favourites to qualify for Rio 2016 since the tournament began, it was a case of being left to wonder what might have been.
By Kevin Darling, Games News Service