Oceania hopefuls eye Turkish odyssey
© Getty Images

Five Oceania aspirants will take to the field over the coming week seeking to be crowned continental kings, thus earning passage to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013. The tournament will be held in Fiji over nine days commencing on Thursday and concluding on 29 March, and will feature the hosts, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, who will all be battling it out for a lone berth on offer to Turkey 2013.

With the tournament featuring only five of the Oceania Football Confederation’s 11 Member Associations, the teams will play each other once in a round robin tournament based on a league system. Notable absentees include Solomon Islands who were finalists in 2011, and Tahiti – the only Pacific Islands nation to win the tournament – who were crowned in 2008 and subsequently made a historic appearance at the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt.

Kiwis face weight of expectation
New Zealand are the defending champions after earning the title as hosts in 2011 and going on to compete at that year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia. They performed with distinction on the world stage, drawing 1-1 with both Cameroon and Uruguay, before being eliminated due to a slim 1-0 loss against eventual runners-up Portugal.

Their recent record and strong squad will surely make the Junior All Whites favourites on paper. Chris Milicich will again be at the helm and the former Waitakere United coach has plenty of talent at his disposal. Leading the way are Wellington Phoenix duo Louis Fenton and Tyler Boyd, while England-based Cameron Howieson and Max Crocombe have also tasted first-team professional football, with Burnley and Oxford United respectively. Others plying their trade overseas include Derby County’s Luke Adams and Perth Glory’s Storm Roux, while the balance of the squad is made up of youngsters from the New Zealand national league.

“Part of our role is to develop future All Whites,” says Milicich, with 2011 team members Marco Rojas and Tim Payne both featuring in the senior squad for this weekend’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers. “The last group of U-20’s had certain strengths that we tried to maximise, whereas this group is quite different, we’ve got the ability to play through the thirds and retain the ball at the back.”

Hosts lead the challenge
Of the other countries competing, hosts Fiji have the proudest record in this competition, with four runners-up finishes to their credit. Now they will be looking to make the most of home ground advantage in Lautoka and Ba as they seek a breakthrough triumph. Though the Fijians may be devoid of headline-grabbing names, they have impressed with a string of impressive wins in the build-up, most notably against Vanuatu’s OFC Champions League representatives Amicale.

New Caledonia coach Matthieu Delcroix has no senior national team players to call upon, but he has been able to bring in French-based Stephane Tien-Padom, who has been training with the France Under-19 team in Chateauroux. The New Caledonians only narrowly missed qualification for the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup behind Tahiti.

Though the game in Papua New Guinea has enjoyed a growth spurt in recent years, the Melanesians have not been one of the front-runners at U-20 level, with a fourth-place finish as hosts in 1982 their last prominent achievement. Coach Wesley Waiwai has a number of players who are part of the PNGFAs development squad, with the remainder coming from teams participating in the Telikom National Soccer League.

Perhaps best equipped to make a significant challenge for the continental crown are Vanuatu who boast three players - goalkeeper and one-time Stoke City triallist Seloni Iaruel, prolific striker Jean Kaltack and defender Kevin Shem – that featured for the senior national team at last year’s OFC Nations Cup. On the debit side coach Moise Poida will be without highly regarded centre-back Brian Kaltack and midfielder Nemani Roqara, due to club commitments with OFC Champions League side Solomon Warriors.