The Vanuatu footballers have become instant legends after reaching their first ever final of the OFC Men’s Nations Cup after defeating Fiji 2-1 in Thursday’s semi-final at VFF Freshwater Stadium in Port Vila.

The hosts will meet New Zealand in the final on Sunday in what will be memorable occasion for this football-mad country

Both Fiji and Vanuatu were hoping to write history and qualify for their first final appearance. Fiji’s previous best placement was a third place in 1998 and 2008, while Vanuatu’s top finish was fourth in 2000, 2002 and 2008.

Fiji coach Rob Sherman made two tactical changes with Scott Wara returning to the side and Setareki Hughes replacing Sirusi Nalaubu.

Injuries forced Vanuatu Coach Juliano Schmeling to replace Timothy Boulet with Kerry Iawak and Alex Saniel with John Wohale, while goalkeeper Dgen Leo had to make way for James Iamar and Tasso Jeffrey returned at the expense of Michel Coulon.

The large Fiji community in Port Vila had come out in force, while many Vanuatu businesses had shut their doors to allow the locals to support the home side and create a terrific football atmosphere at VFF Freshwater Stadium.

Fiji blasted out of the starting blocks and new Vanuatu goalkeeper Iamar was immediately called into action to save a dipping free-kick from Hughes, and was only able to look on when a smart cross by Filipe Baravilala kissed his crossbar.

Despite all the Fiji dominance, Vanuatu got a golden opportunity from the penalty spot after an infringement on Godine Tenene in the 10th minute, but Bong Kalo only managed to hit the outside of the post.

While the Fijians were still celebrating their let-off, Johnathan Spokeyjack picked up the ball on the right wing, dribbled smartly around defender Ivan Kumar and unleashed a Vanuatu rocket diagonally past the outstretched Isikeli Sevanaia to send the home fans into delirium.

Buoyed by the goal and well-marshalled by their captain Brian Kaltak, Vanuatu got a better grip on the Fijians who were playing catch-up for the first time in this OFC Men’s Nations Cup campaign.

The massive crowd at Freshwater Stadium was treated to a colossal battle between Kaltak and Fiji’s own talisman Roy Krishna, who had to feed off crumbs against the Australia A-League champion centre-back.

Vanuatu continued to threaten on the break, with Spokeyjack being denied a brace by a goal-saving tackle from Kumar, before Tenene wasted a glorious opportunity on the stroke of half-time.

Sherman’s words at the break must have been magic, because Fiji were level within 44 seconds after coming out of the changing rooms.

Krishna laid off a teasing cross from Nabil Begg to set up Sitivenu Cavuilagi, who struck a screamer from the edge of the box to score his first international goal and set up a mouthwatering second half.

After weathering a brief Fijian storm, the shell-shocked Vanuatu team slowly regathered their composure and regained the lead though Jason Thomas in the 57th minute. The goal was a carbon-copy of the one that defeated the Solomon Islands in the group stage, with Tenene again delivering a pinpoint corner for the defender to glance home at the near post.

The semi-final turned into a pulsating end-to-end battle between the increasingly desperate Fijians and the hosts trying to put the game to bed on their fast breaks.

Both sets of passionate fans were near boiling point as the match reached the closing stages, screaming at every tackle, pass, shot and save.

The biggest cheer however was reserved for New Zealand referee Campbell Kirk Kawana-Waugh, blowing the full-time whistle to record an historical victory and start all night parties in kava bars around Port Vila.

Post-match, the tension continued to simmer, with Fiji’s Scott Wara shown a red card for dissent towards the referee.

Fiji: 1 (Sitiveni Cavuilagi 46’)
Vanuatu: 2 (Johnathan SPOKEYJACK 12’, Jason THOMAS 57’)

HT 0-1