The picturesque Samoan resort of Faleata might seem an unlikely starting point on the road to South Africa, but it is there that nine of Oceania's FIFA World Cup™ hopefuls will kick off the first of the continental qualifying competitions at the South Pacific Games this Saturday.
The action will be brought to you live on FIFA.com, where users will be able to keep bang up to date with unfolding events via a live scoreboard that will continuously update with line-ups, goal flashes and other important incidents such as substitutions and yellow and red cards.
American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga and Vanuatu are all currently limbering up prior to commencing battle at the coastal town's J.S. Blatter Playing Fields Complex, the island nation's first-ever dedicated football facility - funded by the Goal Programme.
Making up a ten-strong field are Tuvalu, who as the only non-FIFA members cannot qualify for South Africa 2010, leaving the rest to compete for three berths alongside New Zealand at the OFC Nations Cup. That particular tournament, which offers a guaranteed spot at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, will be played out in a round-robin basis during 2008 and early 2009, and will mark the first FIFA World Cup qualifying competition in Oceania since Australia's move to the AFC.
In a further change to a now-familiar format, the winner of the
OFC Nations Cup will no longer face a play-off against a South
American opponent, but can rather look forward to a two-legged
showdown against Asia's fifth-placed side. That third phase of
qualifying, however, is but a distant dream for the sides preparing
for a tournament that, with the dominant Socceroos now out of the
picture, could herald the beginning of a remarkable adventure for
one of world football's lesser-known nations.
The Solomon Islands, for example, will recall well that they finished ahead of New Zealand at the last edition of the OFC Nations Cup, when only the might of Guus Hiddink's Australians denying them a shot at a Germany 2006 play-off. Vanuatu, too, should be buoyed by the memory of their role in that unlikely outcome, while the onlooking Kiwis will doubtless shudder at the recollection of losing 4-2 in Adelaide to an island nation with a population of just over 200,000.
At 161st and 167th place respectively in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, this duo are certainly the highest-ranked of the South Pacific Games' participants, although it is only in the past month that they have leapfrogged Fiji, who now follow close behind at 170.
TV dictates schedule change
The Fijians avoided both of their higher-placed rivals in the draw, landing in Group A with Tahiti, New Caledonia, the Cook Islands and Tuvalu, leaving the Solomon Islands and Vanuata to battle supremacy in an intriguing section comprised by American Samoa, Tonga and hosts Samoa.
The man responsible for that draw was Everton's Samoan-born midfielder Tim Cahill, and the luxury of being able to call upon a player of the free-scoring Australian international's calibre is one the competing nation's managers can only dream of. As it is, it will be a left to a cast of largely unknown Oceanian players to make their mark in front of a continental audience eagerly preparing to tune in to the event on television.
Cahill, who made the draw alongside OFC General Secretary Tai Nicholas, spoke of his desire to see more footballers from the South Pacific make their mark at the highest level, and with matches to be beamed live throughout the region, the nations' top young prospects certainly have the opportunity to underline their potential in front of a large audience.
Such is the demand in Oceania for coverage of the tournament, in fact, that organisers have been forced into altering the schedule to enable the host broadcaster to screen up to two live matches-per-day throughout the South Pacific. That has meant that the opening day curtain-raiser between the Solomons and American Samoa will now take place at the same time as the meeting between French-speaking rivals Tahiti and New Caledonia, with Fiji's duel with Tuvalu following three hours later.
Women's Olympic dreams
Oceania's women will also be in action at the South Pacific Games, although in their case the goal is a place at next year's Olympic Women's Football Tournament in China.
A record nine participants will face off for the right to face New Zealand in a two-legged play-off to claim the region's guaranteed berth at Beijing 2008, with Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands and American Samoa competing in Group A, while Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa and New Caledonia clash in Group B.
Indeed, it is the women's final on the evening of Friday 7 September that will see the curtain will be brought down on this, the 13th South Pacific Games. By that time, the identity of New Zealand's three FIFA World Cup play-off challengers will already be known, and FIFA.com will keep you up to date with all the news and reports from Samoa as the action unfolds.