Oceania’s finest young players will be dreaming of passage to the United Arab Emirates and the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup with the continent’s qualification tournament taking place over the coming week. Commencing on Wednesday, the eight-day event will be held in the remote Vanuatu island of Espiritu Santo.
Reigning champions New Zealand will go into the tournament as favourites with the Young All Whites’ reign to be challenged by Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and preliminary round qualifiers Cook Islands. Solomon Islands and Tahiti are the only OFC nations not to participate in the UAE 2013 qualifiers. However, the scale of New Zealand’s challenge remains to be seen with the 14th edition of the tournament the first to be held away from Auckland since 2007, while significant focus and resources have gone into youth development across the continent in recent years.
Kiwis well prepared
New Zealand are hunting their fourth successive appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, and the class of 2013 do not lack preparation. The young New Zealanders boast a proud history with the world tournament having hosted in 1999 - their maiden FIFA event. Four years ago in Nigeria, the Young All Whites won through to the knockout stage, becoming the first New Zealand side to do so on the world stage.
The current team have spent the past six months or so participating in the National Youth League based in Auckland. Entry into the league gave coach Darren Bazeley – a former professional player in England and with A-League side New Zealand Knights – the chance to work with his players on a regular basis. "The ASB Youth League was the ideal preparation for the OFC U-17 Championship,” said Bazeley, who is in charge of his maiden campaign having twice previously been the team’s assistant coach. “It’s given us the opportunity to try different players and formations in competitive matches against older players."
While the Kiwis have yet to prove themselves internationally, the squad does at least boast impressive bloodlines. Andre de Jong and Matthew Ridenton are the sons of ex-All Whites Fred de Jong and Michael Ridenton, while fellow midfielder Alex Rufer is the son of another All White Shane Rufer, and the nephew of Oceania Player of the Century Wynton.
Challengers look forward
With the benefit of local knowledge, Vanuatu are perhaps best placed to make a challenge to New Zealand’s hegemony. Under experienced and highly-regarded former Vanuatu international Etienne Mermer, the host side have impressed in a number of warm-up matches.
As always Fiji are well credentialed and can take confidence from the performance of their U-20 team, which last month pushed New Zealand until the final match of the Turkey 2013 qualifiers. Captain Iosefo Verevou is one of the few names to return from the 2011 tournament, and he will be hoping for a vastly improved performance after a disappointing showing in Auckland on that occasion.
If Fiji can take heart from their fellow national youth team, then New Caledonia’s youngsters should be boosted by their senior team’s efforts throughout 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers. Les Cagous reached the final of the OFC Nations Cup last year, before challenging New Zealand throughout the recently concluded final round of Brazil 2014 qualifying. One notable name in their ranks is Mickael Partodikromo, with the midfielder learning his trade in New Zealand and spending time training in the youth set up of English Premier League club Swansea City.
Papua New Guinea and Cook Islands will likely face a tough ride in Vanuatu, with the latter seeing off Polynesian rivals American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga in the previous stage. The Cook Islanders are, however, supplemented by the New Zealand-based trio of midfielder Samuel Maoate-Cox, goalkeeper Keegan Inia and striker Maro Bonsu-Maro, while midfielder Thane Beal plays his club football in Australia.