Young Matildas eye Thai prize
Adrian Santrac’s Young Matildas will no doubt be firm favourites to book a spot at their second-consecutive FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship when they take on hosts Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the upcoming OFC qualifying tournament. The three-team competition runs from 2 to 24 April at the Lloyd Robson Oval in Port Moresby and the winner will go on to be the lone Oceania representative at Thailand 2004.
Australia boss Adrian Santrac, who also pulls the strings for the senior Australia women’s squad that lined up at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, whittled an original 24-player pool to a slim 18 earlier this month at a comprehensive training camp in Canberra.
Consisting of a refreshing blend of youth and experience, Santrac will surely be expecting to come out on top of the pack. Two members of the team (Leah Blayney and Selin Kuralay) have already earned caps for the senior women’s team. Also in the squad are veterans from the first-ever FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship held in Canada in 2002. Kuralay, Elissia Canham and Emma Davison were all part of the Aussie side that reached the quarter-finals of Canada 2002, losing out in extra time to Brazil and finishing an impressive fifth.
“The depth of the squad is very encouraging,” assistant coach Alistair Edwards told Australiansoccer.com. “These players are thoroughly deserving of their selection.”
The girls from Down Under will set sail for Papua New Guinea on 19 April, before getting set to take on the Solomon Islands in their first match on 22 April. A win would see them join the senior side as Oceania reps in 2002’s major competitions. The Matildas recently qualified as OFC’s Olympic hopefuls.
Hope springs eternal for hosts PNG
With no New Zealand and only three sides participating in the Oceania U-19 qualifiers (down from seven in 2002 following a score of withdrawals), Australia must certainly be considered the odds-on, fancied favourites. But the up-and-coming Solomons and hosts Papua New Guinea will surely do their all to upset the apple cart in spite of their underdog status.
The Papua New Guinean senior women’s side earned recognition last year by taking the laurels at the South Pacific Games. With a few familiar faces from the side that earned top honours in the U-19 squad, Papua New Guinea will prove no pushover. And with a FIFA Goal Project inaugurated last year on the picturesque cluster of islands, the nation is currently benefiting from much-needed infrastructure and organisational improvements.
The U-19 side are taking the competition very seriously indeed. John Davani has cut his 20-woman squad from 45 original applicants, and after a thorough training camp at the PNGFA Academy in Lae, the side will be out for more than just a little respect.
A big first for the Solomon Islands
Led by recently installed head coach Rex Masuaku, the Solomon Islands are rank outsiders of the three-team field. However, the qualifying competition will mark a historic moment in the nation’s football as it will be the first international women’s tournament in which the country has participated.
The FIFA Women’s U-19 World Championship Thailand 2004 is set to run from 10-27 November.
OFC U-19 Women’s Qualifying Schedule: