New Zealand will, unsurprisingly, begin the upcoming OFC U-20 Championship as favourites, but a huge upset three years ago means all six underdogs will travel to Auckland in optimistic mood. The inaugural competition was conquered by Tahiti in 1974, but Australia and New Zealand won, between them, every edition thereafter until its most recent, when the French-speaking nation again stunned Oceania to qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009.
Just four teams competed at the last OFC U-20 Championship, with that number now expanded to seven, perhaps in part due to Tahiti’s success in becoming the first Pacific Island nation to qualify for a non-futsal or beach soccer FIFA tournament. Despite that historic achievement on home soil, Tahiti are not one of the nations seeking a ticket to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011.
Commencing on Thursday, the seven competing sides will be split into two groups, with semi-finals and a final to decide Oceania’s lone representatives at the world finals. Group A consists of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and American Samoa, while Group B features Solomon Islands, New Zealand and New Caledonia, with all matches to be played at Centre Park in Auckland.
Few teams, including the hosts, are likely to be as well prepared as Fiji, who have finished runners-up on four previous occasions. Their players have been in camp since last year, competing together throughout the Fijian national league season. The squad arrived in New Zealand a full month before the start of the competition, and will be lead by newly-appointed Fiji FA head coach Claudio Canosa. A strapping central defender in his day, Canosa played for Racing in his homeland before a lengthy stint in the Australian national league.
"Hopes are high and we are confident of winning the play-offs and becoming the first national team to qualify for a World Cup," said Fiji team director Sheik Ibrahim. "There is no reason why we cannot win. If this U-20 team does not qualify then I believe we will need to reassess our various preparation plans before we prepare a national side again for the Oceania qualifiers."
Among those hoping to halt the Fijian charge in the group stage are Vanuatu, who scored two impressive wins over domestic opposition last week before departing for Auckland. Coach Moise Poida is optimistic about his team’s chances with many in the squad competing in the Vanuatu national competition, although injury concerns surround a number of players.
Kiwis banking on firepower
Despite winning the last three OFC U-17 Championships in style, New Zealand have found the U-20 competition to be a different challenge. The Kiwis only narrowly secured qualification for Canada 2007 before failing to get the better of Tahiti last time out. The current squad, however, is arguably their most experienced in modern times.
Included are a number of overseas-based professionals and coach Chris Milicich has selected two players – Birmingham City’s Luke Rowe and Melbourne Victory’s Marco Rojas – that featured in Ricki Herbert’s latest senior New Zealand squad. The striking options are particularly impressive, with Rojas impressing in his debut campaign in the A-League, Andy Bevin fresh from an admirable season and in-form Waitakere United striker Dakota Lucas.
“I think it’s a strong squad and I think it will do the job that we ask it to,” said Milicich of a squad that doesn’t include 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ player Chris Wood, who will remain with his English League One club Brighton and Hove Albion. “Qualification is definitely not assured and that’s why we went out of our way to ensure that at least ten of the boys who are [based] here, and have trained and played together, are in the squad."
Standing in the way of the Kiwis are New Caledonia, who finished runners-up in 2008, and Solomon Islands. The latter, whose national U-20 squad are known as the Mamulas, will represent the sprawling archipelago nation, which has developed so rapidly in the past decade.
"We want to win," said Solomon Islands coach Noel Wagapu. "I believe strongly that my boys have the quality and passion to do so. We respect the preparations of our opponents and will not consider any particular team over others. Each game we play will be treat the same."