FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: New Caledonia's 'amateurs' could be tournament's fairytale story

After the feel-good romanticism of 2016, where Leicester seized the Premier League title despite 5000:1 odds and Iceland made it to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, cynicism made a comeback to football this year. Just ask Claudio Ranieri. Or Wayne Shaw. Who? The Sutton United goalkeeper who was sacked for eating a pie on live television... during an FA Cup match.

However, just two months into 2017, in the form of New Caledonia — a collection of islands tucked away in the Pacific Ocean some 1,200 kilometres from Australia — the sport may have just found a narrative that has all the makings of a fairytale after the tiny nation qualified for the U-17 World Cup, to be held in India later this year.

Players of New Caledonia celebrate sealing qualification to the U-17 World Cup. Image courtesy: Caledonian Football Federation

Players of New Caledonia celebrate sealing qualification to the U-17 World Cup. Image courtesy: Caledonian Football Federation

New Caledonia, population 2,65,000. New Caledonia, a country affiliated by FIFA only in 2004. New Caledonia, whose senior team was ranked 169th in February. New Caledonia, who had never made it to the finals of any FIFA tournament at any age group before this. New Caledonia, a word you're more likely to find in the travel pages of newspapers than the sports section. New Caledonia, whose most famous, and possibly only, contribution to world football is a certain Christian Karembeu. Remember him?

But here they are. Ready to take on the Brazils, the Englands and the Spains of the world.

The level of competition may be daunting, but New Caledonia coach Dominique Wacalie says his side are not coming to India as spectators.

"We will depart for India with our own ambitions, to represent our country and our football at the highest level in the world. It will be difficult but we will be there with the firm intention of putting ourselves at the same level as others even in difficulty. (We will try) to give maximum effort, to enjoy every moment and play an active part in our matches, and certainly not go as spectators," Wacalie told Firstpost in an interview in April.

You might consider New Caledonia's presence at the World Cup as an idiosyncrasy of fate or a consequence of their resilience. While both those factors played a role in the nation's entry into their first ever U-17 World Cup, there were other equations at play too, like FIFA granting the Oceania Football Confederation two spots for the U-17 World Cup instead of one and Australia choosing to play their matches under the Asian Football Confederation banner.

But, at the end of the day, luck can only take you so far. For New Caledonia, qualifying to the U-17 World Cup was far from easy. After all, Tahiti, one of the teams they beat at February's OFC U-17 Championship en route to securing their spot in the World Cup, had trained their U-17 team by making them compete in their national football league for a season.

And even after the spirited Francophone outfit made it to the final of the U-17 OFC Championship with ease, a harsh reality check awaited: New Zealand thumped them 7-0 in the final of the OFC U-17 Championship. Wacalie, who was the Technical Director of New Caledonia until he took over the reins of the U-17 team from Michael Clarque in April 2017, is keen to prevent a repeat.

"By sealing qualification, we need to be going even deeper into the details, with staff who are more consistent and a work plan adapted for the elite level. I’m relying on new methods of training, like using video technology. To take part in a World Cup we need to put the maximum possible into our preparations because, we know the level of our adversaries. We will be taking on the future Messis and Ronaldos. It’s massive for our country and we have to do everything in our means to respond when the time comes.

"I also had a very quick realisation of all the work that needs to be done, and what is waiting for us at the World Cup. That’s what we want to try and pass on to our players, so they too are aware of the level that they will to face, of the rigours and the demands which a World Cup requires. We will prepare as best we can to face up to these two criteria.

"The players can talk about it after: ‘I was there, I played against this player or that player, and he didn’t get past’. That must be our state of mind," said Wacalie, who retired from the sport in 2014 after New Caledonia's 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil campaign ended in dismay that was all too familiar for the country in FIFA tournaments until February.

This is the first time New Caledonia have qualified for a FIFA tournament in any age group. Image courtesy: OFC

This is the first time New Caledonia have qualified for a FIFA tournament in any age group. Image courtesy: OFC

The 34-year-old pointed out that even though football was popular in his country, the New Caledonians remained "amateur" footballers.

"Football is the top sport in New Caledonia. Everyone here watches football, and a lot of them play it. But we remain amateur footballers, our players aren’t paid here in New Caledonia. Football is an anchor in the base of Caledonian society, it plays an important role because it’s played a lot, especially in villages. Sport brings us together, it allows us to share our values, it allows for exchanges, so football truly has an important place here on 'le caillou'," he added. "But since we're a collection of islands, it poses a major problem for our team. The players are originally from our three provinces, which causes significant difficulties when it comes to travelling in for camps, especially as they are all still students. Our camps are therefore only during the school holidays."

Despite these odds, young footballers from New Caledonia are starting to make waves. Earlier this year, Paul Gope-Fenepej, an imposing striker, earned himself a trial with French side Nantes. The Ligue 1 side was the first club of Karembeu, who lived in New Caledonia till he was 17 before the lure of European football caught his fancy.

With their country still being a French overseas territory, New Caledonians often root for the European heavyweights in FIFA tournaments. But not anymore.

"Little by little, people will become aware of the participation of New Caledonia in its first FIFA World Cup. In New Caledonia this is something very new, because no other team from here has managed to take part in a World Cup. In addition, we regularly watch World Cups on TV, but we follow them from a distance. But now we will be there, so it’s a bit different. We’re in discovery mode; us the team and the staff, but also our supporters," Wacalie said.

French national soccer team members listen to their national anthem before facing Morocco in the King Hassan II tournament in Casablanca June 6. The World champion squad arrived today in Belgium to prepare the upcoming Euro 2000 championship. France's opening match in the Euro 2000 is against Denmark next Sunday in Bruges. L to R:Nicolas Anelka, Franck Leboeuf, Vincent Candela, Christophe Dugarry, Thierry Henry, Youri Djorkaeff and Christian Karembeu. CP//ME - RTRV5Z4

Christian Karembeu (right), who won the 1998 World Cup with France, was born in New Caledonia. Reuters

Having played in a professional set-up, Karembeu was wary of how overwhelming this discovery could be.

"We're really proud of them. This is the first time anyone from the country has qualified for a FIFA event. I hope they will be able to handle this competition. Since it's their first time, they're going to be surprised by everything. I don't want them to be sad because the results at the event will show at which level we are. I know that we are amateurs and have never played in professional football while most of the other teams coming to India have players in professional clubs. We're going to try our own style and our own tactics," Karembeu, who was part of the 1998 World Cup winning France team, told Firstpost during his visit to India in April.

So, what should the world expect from the New Caledonian youngsters?

"Our players are typically Oceanian, they are quick, lively, and technically they like to have the ball. They are young players with a lot of cultural value. What we are missing, is concentration and consistency for an entire match. For the U-17 World Cup, it will be necessary to do an enormous amount on this specific area. But it’s a group with a great state of mind, which is full of solidarity, all of which correspond, finally, with Oceania values. We need to beef up our game, and translate it with a certain discipline, because we know full well that the level at the World Cup will be incredibly high."

If they do that, the amateur team may well spring an upset against a team of future Messis and Ronaldos.

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Published Date: Jul 04, 2017 03:01 pm | Updated Date: Jul 04, 2017 05:02 pm