Fiji are the defending champions at the South Pacific Games football tournament, and they have high hopes of upsetting the form book and winning the gold medal again.

As hosts, Fiji rode the tide of local support at the last Games but are now considered only one of a handful of contenders for the medals at the tournament in Apia, Samoa.

The South Pacific Games serve as the first step in the Oceania qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ finals in South Africa. Ten countries participate in five groups in Samoa with the top three going on to play against New Zealand in the next phase of the qualifiers, which will start in October.

Fiji have been through an intensive programme of preparation and the pressure is on their coach Juan Carlos Buzzetti to deliver the goods.

Buzzetti believes that another gold medal is not as crucial as finishing in the top three and going onto the next stage of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

"The games for island people, of course, are very important in terms of getting a gold medal but first priority is to make sure we get to the semi-finals," he said.

"Once we are there, then you have only four teams left and the opportunity to go on and the desire to win the gold will be much stronger. We hope to reach the final, but more important is that we would already be in the next phase of World Cup qualification.

Buzzetti knows all about the capability of the island nations in the Oceania confederation, so long dominated by Australia, who have now moved to the Asian Football Confederation and New Zealand.

In the last qualifying campaign, ahead of the 2006 finals in Germany, Buzzetti was in charge of the Vanuatu side that caused a sensation with a 4-2 win over New Zealand's All Whites.

The Uruguayan-born coach insists the fact that the South Pacific Games also serves as FIFA World Cup qualifiers means the participating countries are also a lot better prepared.

"There won't be easy games here," he said. "We need to respect everybody. For Fiji there is a lot of expectation, we are one of the bigger islands in the Pacific and, of course, everybody expects something special."