Oceania youngsters dream of global stage

Four nations will enter this week’s Oceania qualifying for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Azerbaijan 2012, each with aspirations of finishing top and securing passage to the world stage. But only one, hosts New Zealand, will harbour genuine optimism about featuring at the 16-nation event in September and October. A strong track record at this level, combined with an impressive build-up over the past year, leaves the Young Football Ferns as warm favourites.

The hopes and dreams of the participants - Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and the host nation – will be played out over just five days via a round-robin tournament format. There will be little margin for error, with only the victor earning the right to represent the confederation later this year in the former Soviet republic on the banks of the Caspian Sea. For the first time, the Oceania tournament will be held in conjunction with qualifiers for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012, with all matches to be played at Auckland’s Centre Park in Mangere.

Pacific challengers
Papua New Guinea have long been the Pacific’s main challenger to New Zealand’s regional hegemony, with the two nations matched up just last week in the Oceania play-off for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012. The tournament’s final-day meeting between the pair on Friday may well act as a de facto final of sorts.

The other two participants, Cook Islands and New Caledonia, are both making their continental debut at this event. The latter will possess a relative level of experience, with two of their squad personnel having featured in last year’s Pacific Games selection.

Kiwis seek to maintain momentum
The host nation have a strong history in FIFA’s newest women’s tournament, having hosted the inaugural world finals in 2008, enjoying success on and off the field. Strong crowd support helped New Zealand defeat Colombia for what was their first-ever win at a FIFA tournament.

Fast forward four years and Paul Temple has returned to the helm of the Young Football Ferns, with the Englishman presiding over an impressive build-up that included wins over Australia and Argentina.

“We’ve got some pretty positive results under our belt already and are happy with the way the players and team as a whole are coming on, not just for the qualifiers but for the long term as well,” said Temple, who has named two 14-year-olds and two 15-year-olds in his squad.

“However, it’s important we don’t get complacent and keep working hard to maintain momentum. We’ve got a talented group of players drawn from National Talent Centres across the country and there still others who are nipping at their heels providing healthy competition.”

The OFC U-17 tournament has been held only once before, in New Zealand in 2010, and saw Solomon Islands finish runners-up to the hosts with Papua New Guinea in third.