New Zealand have ruled the waves in Oceania ever since Australia made the switch to the AFC. However, with the Olympic Games looming on the horizon, the region's top dogs will face a stiff challenge to their local supremacy when the OFC qualifying tournament for Beijing 2008 gets underway in Fiji on Saturday.
Joining the New Zealanders and the hosts in the six-team
round-robin competition will be Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New
Guinea and Solomon Islands, and the prize for the victors is the
chance to represent the confederation at the big event itself.
The Oly-Whites make their debut against the Fijians on the opening day, and while Stu Jacobs' side are most people's favourites, the coach himself is refusing to get carried away: "It won't be easy but we are confident of getting a good result against Fiji and starting on the right foot." The Antipodeans will be hampered by injuries to two key men, however, Sunderland defender Jack Pelter and central midfielder Nick Roydhouse.
Hosts Fiji, meanwhile, have been taking things very seriously, prompting local pundits to tip them as the revelations of the tournament. After playing a string of friendlies at the start of the month and winning the lot, Juan Carlos Buzzetti's charges have spent the last three weeks holed up at their training camp. "Our priority was to identify our strengths and weaknesses and that's what we've been working on," he said.
As for Solomon Islands all eyes are on Benjamin Totori, the rising star who has already made his full international debut and appeared with Waitakere United at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007. "All our opponents have prepared very well for the tournament and our approach will be to take each game as it comes," explained Solomons coach Luke Eroi.
Rounding of the sextet are Vanuatu, Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea, three promising and fast-improving sides who should ensure one of the tightest OFC qualifying battles since the confederation first entered for the Olympic Games in 1984.
Fixtures for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament
Prel. Comp. OFC (local times given)
Saturday 1 March
14.00: New Zealand-Fiji
16.30: Cook Islands- Vanuatu
19.00: Papua New Guinea-Solomon Islands
Monday 3 March
14.30: Vanuatu-New Zealand
17.00: Papua New Guinea-Fiji
19.30: Solomon Islands-Cook Islands
Wednesday 5 March
14.30: Fiji-Cook Islands
17.00: Papua New Guinea-New Zealand
19.30: Solomon Islands-Vanuatu
Friday 7 March
14.30: New Zealand-Solomon Islands
17.00: Cook Islands-Papua New Guinea
Sunday 9 March
12.00: Cook Islands-New Zealand
14.30: Vanuatu-Papua New Guinea
17.00: Solomon Islands-Fiji