A fortnight of competition will reveal Oceania’s lone participant in this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile. The 14-day continental championship will be significant for several reasons. All 11 Member Associations will line up, while integrated co-hosting of an OFC tournament will take place for the first time since Australia departed joined Asia in 2006. American Samoa and Samoa will share hosting duties of the competition, and while that has occurred before it has typically taken a format spread over months.
New Zealand - participants in the past four FIFA tournaments at this age level - start warm favourites to make it five in a row and secure a ticket to Chile 2015. Joining them in Group A to be played at JS Blatter Field in the Samoan capital of Apia are Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and the hosts. A short flight across the Pacific’s blue waters is Pago Pago with American Samoa to host Group B which also includes Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga and Vanuatu.
*Kiwis lead the pack *
New Zealand will feel a level of affinity with the FIFA U-17 World Cup with many of the new faces in the current senior team graduates of recent campaigns at junior level. In 2009 the Young All Whites became the first New Zealand team to reach the knockout stage of FIFA tournament. More recently, the Kiwis impressed at Mexico 2011 with a series of strong performances on the world stage to again progress to the Round of 16.
“Anything can happen and Fiji are always athletic, powerful and physical,” said new Junior All Whites coach Jose Figuiera. “But the message is the same regardless of the opponent. We have to stick to our game, treat every opponent with respect and make sure we do the job properly.”
New Zealand will be chasing their sixth - and fifth consecutive - regional title in Polynesia. Among those seeking to halt that run will be Fiji, with the Melanesians buoyed by their FIFA U-20 World Cup qualification last year thanks in part to an academy-based focus on youth development.
Samoa will be an interesting proposition with their line-up complemented by players of Samoan heritage from as far afield as Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Their side will be coached by one of the iconic figures of Samoan football; Desmond Faai’uaso.
*Aspirants jostle for positions *
Group B looks an intriguing proposition where perhaps Tahiti are best placed to make an impression having prepared for the OFC U-17 Championship thoroughly after competing in the Tahitian top flight – Division Federale – for the last 18 months. There the young French Polynesians have registered several victories and made a big impact on the domestic scene as they seek to become the first OFC nation outside of Australia and New Zealand to complete a full set of World Cup qualifications at U-17, U-20 and senior level.
Vanuatu, who have benefited from two consecutive participations at the Youth Olympic Games Boys’ Football Tournament in 2010 and 2014, will be aiming to improve on their third-place achieved two years ago, with the experienced Etienne Mermer to again coach the side.
The group stage begins on Tuesday with the top two teams in each section advancing to the semi-finals. The semi-finals and all-important final are scheduled for 24 and 26 January in Pago Pago. The FIFA U-17 World Cup will take place in Chile from October 17 to November 8.