Oly-Whites qualify for Olympics with victory
They didn't win style points, but it didn't matter a jot as the New Zealand under-23 football side won their way to the London Olympics yesterday.
The Oly Whites beat Fiji 1-0 in a tense and physical final of the Oceania Football Confederation's men's Olympic qualifiers at Taupo's Owen Delany Park.
New Zealand grabbed the game's only goal from the penalty spot in the 17th minute courtesy of Greg Draper and had to dig deep to hold out a strong and determined Fijian side who applied plenty of pressure in the final spell.
"It wasn't a spectacle of football," said New Zealand coach Neil Emblen.
"More of an 11-on-11 man scrap to be fair.
"It was nice to say the boys stepped up and matched Fiji for the scrap because we thought they could be better at that than us. We thought we'd have more quality than them but today wasn't the day for quality football, we managed to scrap enough and get the result."
New Zealand Football now just need to get official confirmation from the New Zealand Olympic Committee of the team's selection in the Games. The Oly Whites join Spain, Brazil, Uruguay, Egypt, Gabon, Morocco, Belarus, Switzerland, Korea Republic, Japan, United Arab Emirates and hosts Great Britain as teams who have qualified for the 16-nation event.
Ilisoni Tuinawaivuvu's clumsy handball allowed Wales-based Draper the opportunity to put New Zealand ahead from the penalty spot, sending goalkeeper Akuila Mateisuva the wrong way by placing his shot into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
Draper thought he had doubled his side's lead late in the first half only for it to be ruled out for offside, before Fiji responded with a powerful second-half display.
Fijian captain Esava Naqaleca came within centimetres of levelling the scores just a minute into the second half when his thunderous header crashed into the crossbar and three minutes later Zibraaz Sahib did the same thing.
The Fijians continued to threaten, particularly from set pieces, but the New Zealand defence and goalkeeper Jake Gleeson held firm and saw out four nervous minutes of extra time before celebrating their triumph.
The team can add three senior All Whites to their lineup for the Olympics, and overseas professionals Tommy Smith, Marco Rojas, Kosta Barbarouses and Chris Wood are all eligible through age qualification to represent the team in London. Rojas was named in the original squad for the Oceania tournament before being ruled out by an injury suffered when playing for his Melbourne Victory side against his former club, Wellington Phoenix.
The Football Ferns can join the Oly Whites in London if they can get past Papua New Guinea in two legs of the OFC Women's Olympic Final. The home leg is on Saturday in Whangarei, with the return match on April 4 in Papua New Guinea.
New Zealand 1 (Greg DRAPER pen-17') Fiji 0. HT: 1-0