The 13th edition of the OFC U-17 Championship promises to differ from those which have gone before. Once again reigning champions New Zealand will start warm favourites on home turf, but this time the competition has expanded to ten teams from a field of just four two years ago. Many of the Island representatives are comprised of players in newly formed academies making for an extra level of intensity in the competition to be played between 8 and 18 January, with the victor booking their ticket to the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011.
Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium, venue for the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup Final will host the tournament with Group A comprised of American Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the host nation. Group B has a distinct French Polynesian flavour with New Caledonia and Tahiti leading the charge alongside Cook Islands, Solomon Islands and Tonga.
Champions under challenge
Two years ago at Nigeria 2009 Steve Cain’s New Zealanders carved out a unique place in the nation’s football history by claiming a first-ever qualification for the knockout stage of a FIFA tournament. On that occasion the Young All Whites needed to progress past just three opponents in sealing a berth alongside the world elite. Nevertheless their showing in Nigeria was yet further proof that football in the ‘Land of the long white cloud’ is on a sharp upward trajectory, although the indications are that the Kiwis face a tough challenge if they are to remain continental kings.
The New Zealanders were hit this week by injuries to Albany midfielder James Debenham (broken arm) and Canterbury defender Shawn O’Brien (foot). English-born Cain, who identified Fiji and Vanuatu as likely threats, says his squad has an attacking balance. “We’ve got some very talented and pacy players in this squad,” the coach said. “We hope to go at teams and we know we’ll be up against some pretty solid and well organised opponents and we’re looking to impose our game on them. We are at home so we’re going to look to make things happen when we’ve got the ball.”
Many of the Vanuatu team are veterans of the last qualifying tournament two years ago, and that experience is likely to be invaluable to Wilson August’s young charges. Fiji are coached by well-known former international Hussain Sahib, and the team has enjoyed lengthy preparation as they seek to regain their former mantle as Pacific Island heavyweights. Much interest too will focus on Papua New Guinea after the nation enjoyed unprecedented success last year with national champions Hekari United winning their way to the FIFA Club World Cup and the women’s team reaching the final of the OFC Women’s Nations Cup.
Intense competition for a top-two finish is expected in Group B where Tahiti and Vanuatu, second and third-placed finishers in 2009, engage in a three-way contest with the Solomon Islands. New Caledonia and the Solomons, as well as Vanuatu, have established academies for elite young players in recent years and a number of this new breed will strut their stuff in Auckland.
The raw talent to be found across the Solomons’ archipelago means the nation can never be underestimated at continental level and the team known as the Katukatus have enjoyed an impressive build-up. The team won the TVL International tournament in Vanuatu last year and in recent weeks have played out two draws against a star-studded Honiara XI in the nation’s capital, before an impressive victory over strong club side Marist. “We have worked on the mental side of the game and we are confident that the players are ready to take on any team in the championship," said coach Chris Asipara.