The fifth edition of the OFC O-League commences this weekend and the eight-team tournament promises to be the most competitive yet, with most teams having bolstered their rosters. Last season’s champions, Hekari United, created history as the first team from outside New Zealand to win the tournament. The team from Papua New Guinea recruited strongly, both locally and internationally, and it seems other Islander clubs have followed suit.
New Zealand’s powerhouse duo of Auckland City and Waitakere United return looking to salvage some dented pride, having won the first three continental titles between them before Hekari’s surprise victory last term. Joining the Auckland-based duo in Group B are New Caledonia’s AS Magenta and Tahiti’s AS Tefana. The other group is perhaps more even intriguing and features Hekari United, Solomon Islanders Koloale, tournament debutants Amicale of Vanuatu, plus Fijian champions Lautoka. Awaiting the victor of next April’s two-legged final will be a ticket to the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup.
Auckland City will be desperate to regain their title after Hekari claimed regional bragging rights earlier this year. While City have recruited strongly, they have also lost a number of established players, and with the New Zealand domestic competition only having started last weekend, the team, under the dual tutelage of Aaron McFarland and Ramon Tribulietx, are an unknown quantity as yet. Former Scottish professional Stuart Kelly, prolific striker Luis Corrales and New Zealand youth Phil Edginton are amongst the key additions. However the side have lost All Whites squad member Chad Coombes, while Keryn Jordan, Ki-Hyung Lee, Greg Uhlmann, Paul Urlovic and Grant Young have all retired.
It is a similar situation across town, where Waitakere have lost some key personnel, led by Solomons Islands international Benjamin Totori and former All White striker Brent Fisher, while player-coach Neil Emblen is considered unlikely to pull on the boots again this term. However, the team, beaten by Hekari in last season’s decider, have been boosted by new arrivals in the form of winger Luiz Del Monte and striker Mike Gwyther.
The French Polynesian duo of AS Magenta and AS Tefana have been dealt no favours with the draw and they will need to overcome at least one of the New Zealand sides if either are to progress to the semi-finals. The New Caledonians, unluckily drawn with the same pair for the second season in succession, will undoubtedly count on the midfield promptings of national team skipper Pierre Wajoka.
All four Group A participants will harbour ambitions of a top-two finish and a berth in the semi-finals. Hekari will be keen to demonstrate their stunning rise up the regional pecking order is no one-off, and their continued squad strengthening ahead of their appearance at the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup™ suggests the club still have a strong appetite for success.
The side from the PNG capital now have seven Solomon Islanders on their roster, headed by start recruit Henry Fa’arodo. Other new additions include the Fijian duo of midfielder Pita Senibiaukula and striker Osea Vakatalesau, the latter having led the worldwide goalscoring charts in qualification matches for South Africa 2010.
Also stating their ambitions are Lautoka, who have cast the recruitment net far and wide, signing up five Australians, four Nigerians and one Solomon Islander. Kamal Hassan is set to be the key local figure in the line-up, with the skilful forward having skippered Fiji at August’s OFC Futsal Championship.
Debutants Amicale of Vanuatu are likely to endure a baptism of fire, though they too have a host of Solomon Islanders in their ranks. After several seasons of underachievement, Koloale, the team representing the Solomons, will once again bear the burden of expectation in the football-mad Melanesian archipelago. Koloale’s most high-profile player is Benjamin Totori, who has returned home after successful stints in New Zealand with Manawatu and Waitakere United. Similarly, highly-regarded international George Suri will also line-up for the side, with his playing CV enhanced by stints at both Auckland City and Waitakere United.