Minnows also part of dream

PARIS - Today the final places at next year's World Cup will be decided via the playoffs, but the road to South Africa began on the outskirts of the Samoan capital Apia back in August 2007.

PARIS - Today the final places at next year's World Cup will be decided via the playoffs, but the road to South Africa began on the outskirts of the Samoan capital Apia back in August 2007.

Just over a year had elapsed since Italy defeated France on penalties in Berlin's Olympic Stadium to capture the 2006 World Cup when Francophone rivals Tahiti and New Caledonia lined up at the Toleafoa JS Blatter complex.

The 22 players took to the pitch over a 1000 days prior to the start of the event they were hoping to reach and 15000km from Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium, which will host the 2010 final in July next year.

"The eyes of not only Oceania but the world are on us," said Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) president Reynald Temarii.

The honour of scoring the first goal in World Cup 2010 qualification fell to New Caledonia's captain Pierre Wajoka, who struck from the penalty spot in the ninth minute to earn his side victory in their first-ever qualifier.

His strike gave Didier Chambaron's men a solid start to their Group A campaign at the South Pacific Games, which doubled as the Oceania zone pre-qualifying tournament, but they were soon eclipsed by the Solomon Islands, who smashed American Samoa 12-1 in their first Group B outing.

Commins Menapi was on target four times for the victors, but their moment in the sun proved short-lived.

The Solomon Islands finished top of Group B but went down to Group A runners-up New Caledonia in the semifinals and then lost out to fellow beaten semifinalists Vanuatu in a playoff to decide the third qualifying berth for the second phase.

Victory over the Solomon Islands took New Caledonia to the final Oceania qualifying tournament but the World Cup dreams of Wajoka and his colleagues died when they went down 3-1 to New Zealand in Noumea in September 2008.

Just over a year after their first match and 21 months prior to the big kickoff in South Africa their campaign was over, while New Zealand beat Bahrain in the Asia-Oceania playoff at the weekend to reach the finals. - Sapa-AFP

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