New Zealands U-23 football team have qualified for the London Olympics after a hard-fought 1-0 win over Fiji side in a tense final of the OFC Mens Olympic qualifiers in Taupo today.
Greg Drapers 17th minute penalty proved the difference for the Oly Whites who matched Fijis physicality and had to dig deep to see off a second half Fijian fightback.
Ilisoni Tuinawaivuvus clumsy handball in the box, shortly after a goal line clearance, handed Wales-based Draper the chance to put New Zealand ahead and the striker obliged by sending goalkeeper Akuila Mateisuva the wrong way and slotting his spot kick in the bottom right-hand corner.
Draper had the ball in the back of the net late in the first half only for it to be ruled out for offside but the main action in the second half came from a desperate Fijian side.
Fijian skipper Esava Naqaleca smashed a powerful header off the crossbar a minute into the second stanza and three minutes later Zibraaz Sahib repeated the feat to keep the nerves of the Owen Delany Park crowd jangling.
But New Zealand ultimately held theirs, to join Spain, Brazil, Uruguay, Egypt , Gabon, Morocco, Belarus, Switzerland, Korea Republic, Japan, United Arab Emirates hosts Great Britain as teams already qualified for the 16 nation event.
It wasnt a spectacle of football, admitted coach Neil Emblen, but 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 wed have more quality than them but today wasnt the day for quality football, we managed to scrap enough and get the result.
New Zealand Football officials will meet with the New Zealand Olympic Committee next week seeking a speedy confirmation of Olympic selection in order to undertake the next step in planning and preparation for London.
With three senior All Whites able to be selected for the finals in London and Tommy Smith, Marco Rojas, Kosta Barbarouses and Chris Wood all eligible through age for the otherwise U-23 squad, New Zealand will be able to field a competitive line-up for the 16 nation tournament.
The Football Ferns can join the Oly Whites in London if they can get past Papua New Guinea over two legs of the OFC Womens Olympic Final. The home leg is on Saturday in Whangarei with the return match on April 4 in Papua New Guinea.
OFC Mens Olympic Qualifiers 2012
16-24 March 2012
Owen Delany Park, Taupo, New Zealand
Sunday 25 March
New Zealand 1 (Greg DRAPER pen-17)
New Zealand qualifies for 2012 London Olympics
New Zealand: 1-Jake GLEESON (GK), 2-Tim MYERS, 3-Ian HOGG, 4-Michael EAGER, 9-Greg DRAPER (8-Ethan GALBRAITH 63), 11-Dakota LUCAS (10-Sean LOVEMORE 87), 13-Alex FENERIDIS , 14-James MUSA, 15-Jason HICKS, 17-Adam MCGEORGE (captain), 18-Adam THOMAS (12-Louis FENTON 80).
Substitutes not used: 5-Anthony HOBBS, 7-Cameron LINDSAY, 16-Tristan PRATTLEY, 19-Daniel SARIC, 20-Michael O'KEEFFE (RGK).
Coach: Neil EMBLEN
Fiji: 1-Akuila MATEISUVA (GK), 2-Remueru TEKIATE, 3-Peniame DROVA, 4-Esava NAQELECA (captain), 5-Archie WATKINS, 7-Ilisoni TUINAWAIVUVU, 10-Zibraaz SAHIB, 12-Laisenia RAURA, 14-Jone SALAUNEUNE (16-Abbu Zahid SHAHEED 86), 15-Misaele DRAUNIBAKA, 17-Ilimotama JESE.
Substitutes not used: 6-Luke RAWADAMU, 8-Amani VALEBALAVU, 9-Kavaia RAWAQA, 11-Jone KALOUTAN, 13-Poasa BAINIVALU, 18-Samuela DRUDRU, 19-Krishneel DUTT, 20-Ravinesh SINGH (RGK).
Coach: Imdad ALI
Cautions: Ilimotama JESE 55