Duo enter the fray

Two new countries begin their 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign on Monday when the Cook Islands and Tonga make their bow at the South Pacific Games in Apia, Samoa.

The Cook Islands, a New Zealand dependency, play Fiji, who are defending the gold medal they won on home soil four years ago. Tonga have a difficult a task when they come up against the Solomon Islands, who are considered by most observers as the tournament favourites.

The South Pacific Games football tournament is being used as the first stage in the Oceania qualifiers for South Africa 2010, with the three medal winners advancing to a group competition, against top seeds New Zealand, which will start in October.

Neither the Cook Islands nor Tonga are considered to have a realistic chance of progressing that far but the level of their competitiveness will be measured in the humidity and heat of Samoa.

The Solomon Islands will be seeking to register their second successive win after a 12-1 victory over America Samoa on Saturday, which also saw Fiji score 16 goals against Tuvalu. They will be seeking another rout against the Cook Islands.

The Cook Islands, whose coach is Australian Tim Jerks, are ranked 198th in the FIFA Coca-Cola World Ranking.

Having lost all of their matches in their two previous FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns, the incentive in Samoa will be to break that duck, even if it does not come in their opening game.

Tonga lost 22-0 to Australia in 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifying but have won matches against the likes of American Samoa, the Cook Islands and Samoa in past qualifying events. Their position in the Ranking is 192.

Monday's programme concludes with the derby between Samoa and American Samoa, whose English coach David Brand used to work on the neighbouring island.

Samoa, with a strong contingent of players from clubs in Australia and New Zealand, had a disappointing start in front of their home crowd as they lost 4-0 to Vanuatu in Saturday's match, but probably have too much ambition for the American territory.

It is a rest day for Tahiti and Vanuatu. Tahiti lost to rivals New Caledonia and coach Gerard Kautai insists they must now win their remaining three group games to have any chance of progressing.

"Before the game we talked about how vital it would be to win our opening match. It will be finished for us unless we win the rest of our games," said Kautai, whose next fixture on Wednesday is a Tuvalu.

But key is the meeting on Saturday, September 1 against Fiji. "I think that Fiji are better than all the other teams in the competition. For us now, the task is clear; we have to beat them. There is no other way," added the Tahitian coach.