Solomons lead Pacific charge for Italy
© AFP

The OFC Beach Soccer Championship commences this Wednesday with all three participants dreaming of securing passage to September’s FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Ravenna, Italy. History indicates that Fiji and host nation Tahiti face a massive task if they are to unseat regional sand kings Solomon Islands.

The tournament, which is being held at Jardin de Paofai in Papeete, was originally scheduled to begin on 22 February, but the opening date has been pushed back a day following delays in transit for Vanuatu as wild weather lashed the Pacific over the weekend. Ultimately the high winds and heavy rain from Cyclone Atu meant the tournament was forced to commence without Vanuatu’s participation.

After facing each opponent once, the two finalists will meet on 26 February with a ticket to the world stage the prize on offer for the victor. The tournament will allow local fans just a small taste of what awaits in two years time, when Tahiti will become the first Pacific Island nation to stage a FIFA tournament as host of the Beach Soccer World Cup in 2013.

Bilikiki brilliance
The pedigree of Solomon Islands on the sand is unquestioned, with the Bilikiki having claimed all three Oceania tournaments held since the inaugural crown was contested in 2006. The Solomons have even made an impression on the world stage, most famously defeating Uruguay at the 2009 edition of the tournament in what was a landmark result for Pacific Island nations at a FIFA tournament.

The Solomons are the only team to represent Oceania at a FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup and undoubtedly have the experience and expertise to start as strong favourites. Ominously for their rivals, Bilikiki coach Henry Koto believes the current crop are the best he has fielded since taking the reins of the national team in 2008. "The players in this team are highly talented as individuals and this will make our combinations effective,” said Koto. “I also believe that this team has the determination to win and the players have the fighting spirit within them.”

Expected to once again lead the charge for the Solomon Islands is James Naka, who has scored a remarkable 17 goals in four FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup campaigns, to add to his 29 scored in three OFC Beach Soccer Championships. Lining up with Naka will be another highly experienced exponent on sand in veteran defender Gideon Omokirio, with the pair having played in four consecutive FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups.

Challengers brace for contest
Host nation Tahiti may have little in the way of star quality in their squad but they do possess a goalscorer with enormous pedigree at this level. Teva Zaveroni has bagged 17 goals in previous Oceania tournaments to sit second behind Naka on the continent’s all-time list of goalscorers. Despite the home advantage, the Tahitians will have a tough job overcoming the Solomons and the unknown qualities of Fiji

Runners-up three times, Vanuatu only narrowly lost the last Oceania final and, after defeating the Solomon Islands in the group stage on that occasion, they would have harboured genuine ambitions of going one better in the Tahitian capital this time around. “Our thoughts go out to the Vanuatu team who have prepared hard for this tournament but in the greater scheme of things we are also thankful they have stayed safe during this cyclone,” said OFC General Secretary Tai Nicholas. "This again highlights one of the unique challenges we face in Oceania with vast distances between our member associations.”

Fiji meanwhile have named a relatively inexperienced squad, with just three players - Sandeep Nair, Shalendra Buisena and Benaminio Mateinaqara - having played in the country’s only other appearance at the Oceania qualifiers in 2009. However Fiji have genuine star power in their ranks with giant striker Ratu Veresa Toma an icon of the Fijian game for his international exploits on grass.