A new season of the OFC Champions League commences on Saturday and from the outside looking in, it must seem that reigning champions Auckland City already have one hand on the title before any of the 15 teams take the field. From afar, it is a fair assumption. After all, the Navy Blues have stood on the winners’ dais in each of the past six seasons, winning eight of the past 11 tournaments. Last year’s victory even eclipsed the world mark of five successive continental titles, set by Real Madrid’s famed all-star side of the 1950s.
However the reality, as often is the case, is different from the perception. Of the past four finals won by Auckland, two have been by a single goal, and one via the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. Three seasons ago, Auckland only progressed from the group stage as the best runner-up.
This year a newly-expanded field - last season was a 12-team competition - will stand in Auckland’s way of yet another return to the FIFA Club World Cup. Nine of OFC’s 11 Member Associations will feature, with Samoa’s Lupe Ole Soaga and Cook Islands’ Puaikura both progressing from last month’s preliminary stage.
This year’s tournament features four groups. Auckland City will host one group, while Tahiti tournament veterans AS Tefana will host another in French Polynesia. Notably, New Caledonia, fresh from this week’s history-making qualification for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, will host two groups. AS Magenta will be the home team in Noumea, while Hienghene Sport will welcome teams to the growing football centre of Kone.
Only the section winners will progress to the semi-finals, ahead of a two-legged final which concludes on 6 May. The winner will represent Oceania at this year’s Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
NZ capital club lead hunt
On paper, Team Wellington are perhaps best placed of the challengers to end Auckland City’s continental hegemony. The capital club have reached the past two Champions League finals and most notably, defeated Auckland this time last year to collect the New Zealand championship.
“Auckland have been the benchmark team for a long time now, but in the past couple of years Team Wellington have done really well to close the gap,” long-serving Team Wellington captain Bill Robertson told FIFA.com. “We have certainly tested them in the past couple of years. Winning the Grand Final last season was a great achievement for the club, which was the first time the competition had been won by a club outside Auckland.”
After two near misses, Team Wellington are hoping it will be third time lucky at Auckland’s expense. But they will need to call upon all their Pacific experience to progress from their New Caledonia based group, which includes local side Hienghene and traditional Fijian hotshots Ba.
“The travel is a factor, and we are in a foreign country where probably none of us has been before,” Robertson said. “We will have three games in quick succession. The playing side and the environment is quite different, but we are being professional in the way we prepare ourselves. We are confident, but we know it will be a tough challenge.
“We are a bit more experienced so hopefully we can have a good campaign. The more you play in a competition the more experience you gain. We came pretty close previously, literally just one kick away, so we want to go one better and that has been the aim since day one.”
Aside from Auckland, there are no former winners featuring this season with New Zealanders Waitakere and Papua New Guinea side Hekari United both absent. The prospects of rubbing shoulders with the elite of world football at the end of the year seems distant as the competition kicks-off, but it looms as added motivation for all competitors. “It would be the ultimate prize to win the Oceania league and go all the way to the world stage,” said Robertson. “That is the ultimate goal for any club.”