SA 2010: The journey begins
© FIFA.com

The tiny Samoan town of Apia is being transformed into the temporary capital of world football over the weekend as the long qualifying road for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ begins.

The football tournament at the South Pacific Games is being used as the first phase of qualifiers by the Oceania Football Confederation as nine FIFA members chase the top three places desperate to advance to the second stage.

With just over 1000 days to the start of the 2010 finals, Samoa is about as far as possible from the site of the deciding game in July 2010. Indeed, Soccer City in Johannesburg lies 15000km and 13 times zones away.

But with bunting lining the road, coconuts painted in a myriad of colours and massive banners erected in each village along the route from the airport to Apia to welcome the players, there is a real sense that the 2010 FIFA World Cup is already upon us.

Two adjacent pitches at the Toleafoa J.S. Blatter Complex, the GOAL project built for the Samoa Football Federation, will host the first matches at 15:00 on Saturday (GMT-13).

New Caledonia and Tahiti meet in the Francophone derby on the main field, which will be televised live by RFO throughout the South Pacific, which represents a significant first for the tournament. The tiny stand holds about 200 spectators, giving it the feel of a village match and not an important FIFA World Cup qualifier.

It will be the unique charm of the tournament, where among the lowest ranked teams in the FIFA/World Coca-Cola Ranking get their chance for a brief appearance in the spotlight.

Favourites Solomon Islands take on American Samoa on the adjacent pitch where a goal fest is expected, but supporters will have to sit on the grass verges to get a view of the action.

The Solomon Islands are chasing gold while American Samoa are desperate to keep down the number of goals they concede. The territory holds the unwanted distinction of a 31-0 defeat by Australia in the qualifiers for the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals.

New Caledonia play their first ever FIFA World Cup qualifier but are no strangers to the South Pacific Games, where they have won gold on four previous occasions. Tahiti, meanwhile, have a record five gold medals.

Later on Saturday, Fiji meet Tuvalu, who are the only non-FIFA members competing in the South Pacific Games, while hosts Samoa take on Vanuatu in the fourth of Saturday's matches, kicking off at 20:30 local time when the sun might have set but the humidity and heat are still exhausting.

New floodlights were installed in recent months, also as part of FIFA's GOAL project.

"The eyes of not only Oceania but the world are on us this weekend," says OFC president Reynald Temarii of Tahiti.