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World Cup's winding road

PARIS, May 4- The long road to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa didn't start at Wembley or the Maracana, but on the dusty 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 J. S. Blatter complex.

The 22 players took to the pitch over a thousand days prior to the start of the event they were hoping to reach and 15,000 kilometres from Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, which will host the 2010 final in July.

"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 semi-finals and then lost out to fellow beaten semi-finalists Vanuatu in a play-off 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.

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Just over a year after their first match and 21 months prior to the big kick-off in South Africa their campaign was over, while New Zealand advanced to the Asia/Oceania play-off match with Bahrain as the region’s top side.

The Kiwis then beat the Gulf side to reach the finals.

New Caledonia’s brush with qualification was not without its achievements, though, as it saw them briefly rise into the top 100 of the FIFA World Rankings for the first time in their history.

The country also capitalised on the interest generated by their on-pitch endeavours by building a world-class training facility thanks to an OFC initiative.

The exploits of nations such as New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu will be forgotten when the great and good of the game descend on South Africa in June, but their impact will not go unnoticed by the record books.

Fiji forward Osea Vakatalesau, in particular, has good reason to reflect fondly on his qualifying campaign.

He got off the mark with six goals in a 16-0 trouncing of Tuvalu on the same day that New Caledonia beat Tahiti and finished with 12 goals from 10 matches.

And while Kaka, Fernando Torres, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney will head to South Africa with dreams of scoring the winning goal in the final, nothing can take the tournament’s first strike away from Pierre Wajoka.

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