Oceania aspirants eye rare glimpse of world stage

Oceanian nations head into this week’s OFC U-20 Championship in the knowledge they have a unique opportunity to reach the world stage. With New Zealand hosting next year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup, one Pacific Islands nation is guaranteed the opportunity to rub shoulders alongside the world’s elite in just over 12 months.

Only once before has a country other than New Zealand, or former OFC member Australia, featured at the U-20 World Cup. That was in 2009 when a richly talented group of youngsters from Tahiti saw off New Zealand to win a ticket to Egypt.

That group went on to form the basis of the historic Toa Aito squad which appeared at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. Unfortunately Tahiti are not competing in the six-nation tournament taking place in the Fiji capital of Suva, which commences on Friday. Hoping to outlast all comers over nine torrid days of competition are American Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Senior guidance for young legs
A recurring theme in this year’s tournament is the lengthy list of Oceanian football royalty featuring on the various benches. Topping them all is Oceania Player of the Century Wynton Rufer who will lead the enigmatic Papua New Guinea in their campaign.

Other notable names include Commins Menapi who will guide Solomon Islands, with the veteran striker arguably the Melanesians most famous footballing son. At a similar level is Vanuatu favourite Etienne Mermer who although only 37, is already building a lengthy resume having previously coached at World Cup qualifying tournaments across several age groups.

Fiji are led by Ravinesh Kumar, while their Coaching Director is Carlos Buzzetti who boasts a lengthy and impressive record of success across the Pacific. The hosts arguably start the competition as favourites, while they have also included four players who featured 12 months ago when Fiji finished second behind New Zealand. They recently tackled New Zealand again losing 5-0 and 4-1, although the second encounter was in the balance until the final minutes.

Pacific challengers
Vanuatu and New Caledonia have both previously come close to qualifying for FIFA youth tournaments, and their opening day clash will likely set the tone for their respective aspirations. Vanuatu, like numerous Oceanian nations, face a significant geographic challenge in their training preparation, let alone simply recruiting the best local talent, with the nation comprised of dozens of islands.

Despite a low key build-up New Caledonia harbour strong ambitions in what is the tenth anniversary month of their welcome as a Member Association under the FIFA banner. Their line-up includes Mickael Partodikromo who has just returned from a season with Sheffield United’s youth set-up.

Solomon Islands, with a strong tradition in Futsal and Beach Soccer, typically boast technically gifted players and are a threat in any competition. With several New Zealand-based players and numerous attacking outlets, hopes are high for Menapi’s charges.

Meanwhile, Rufer’s Papua New Guinea enter the tournament with their confidence dented by a couple of hefty defeats against New Zealand. “Solomon and Vanuatu have quick players and they are very skilful and will be tough to contain,” Rufer said of their Melanesian rivals. “These matches will be derby games for us and who knows maybe the boys can step up and pull off a surprise.”

Polynesians American Samoa, who hail from the far east side of the continent, hope to ride the warm afterglow of their historic FIFA World Cup™ campaign 18 months ago, and ensuing positive publicity from the recently released documentary about their experiences. “We are much more used to competing against sides like Tonga, Samoa and Cook Islands but they aren’t in Fiji,” said American Samoa Head of Delegation, Tevita Taumua. “We are going to face teams from a higher level in Oceania and that presents us with a big challenge.”

“We carry the pride of our Member Association forward following the documentary “Next Goal Wins”. Our goal is to achieve the same level as what was achieved then [in 2012].”