Against all odds, the Drew Sherman-coached side defeated host Tonga 3-0 in their opening match of the tournament at the Loto-Tonga Soka Centre on Sunday afternoon.
The win marks a first for the Cook Islands in the World Cup qualifying tournament and has put the side in the driver’s seat to advance into the second stage of the qualifiers.
Coach Sherman opted for overseas-based players in his starting line-up, with Paavo Mustonen and goalkeeper Tahiri Elikana the only Rarotonga-based players making the cut in the first 11.
And his decision paid off, as the national side made a fiery start as opposed to the home team in the opening match of the tournament.
After a relentless effort from both sides, Cook Islands which dominated possession, struck the opener in the 38th minute of the play through forward Taylor Saghabi.
The Sydney-based West Ryde Rovers player tapped the ball into the back of the net after a well-timed corner found him unmarked at the back post.
Tonga went all-out on attack in a bid to get the equaliser before the breather, but was kept at bay by the Cook Islands defence led by skipper Jake Stuart, who made his debut in the match.
The national side went to the break with a slender 1-0 lead.
Cook Islands made a better start to the second half and put some early pressure on the frustrated-looking Tongan side.
The 24-year-old Saghabi extended the lead in the 53rd minute after slotting in another tidy pass from Josh Karika to make it 2-0.
Seven minutes later, Saghabi punished the Tongan defence again to score Cook Islands’ first international hat-trick in the World Cup qualifiers.
Coach Sherman made a couple of changes which included bringing in striker Campbell Best for Karika as the side continued creating some exciting chances, but were unable to score more goals.
Cook Islands held on against a late comeback from Tonga to win 3-0.
Sherman was pleased with the win and hailed the players for working together as a unit.
“The boys were really nervous and didn’t really find their rhythm until a few minutes into the second half,” he told OFC Media after the match.
“We know that when we play our football we are a good team, so we just had to persevere until that came.
“When we did play and we moved the ball quickly, we found pockets of space. It wasn’t any magic half-time team talk, it was a case of settling the boys down.
“This team really works hard for each other, and it is one of our big qualities.”
The Cook Islands will face favourites and better-ranked Samoa in their second match today at 2pm (local time).
Samoa defeated American Samoa in the other match on Sunday 3-2.
A win from the national side will put the team in a very good position to win their first-ever World Cup stage one qualifier.