Just over two years to the day since New Zealand’s historic qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the long path to the global stage for Oceania nations will commence later today. American Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga and host nation Samoa will comprise a quartet of teams in Round 1, with only the winner maintaining their Brazil 2014 ambitions.
Three matches across five days provide little margin for error in the Samoan capital of Apia. The victors shall progress to Round 2, where they will be grouped with Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Tahiti. The other pool will feature Fiji, New Zealand, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
That tournament, to be held next June in Fiji, will double as the 2012 OFC Nations Cup, with qualification for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 therefore in the offing. The four highest teams will also progress to Oceania’s third and final stage of Brazil 2014 qualifying. For now, though, the gaze of four Polynesian nations is very much on the coming week as the world’s greatest football tournament takes a foothold in a remote part of the globe.
Two of the competing nations, American Samoa and Cook Islands, have followed similar pathways in their preparations, both appointing high-profile coaches and both having taken part in the September’s Pacific Games in New Caledonia. Former MLS and USA U-20 national team coach Thomas Rongen will guide American Samoa, while ex-All Whites midfielder Shane Rufer, elder brother of Oceania Player of the Century Wynton, will guide Cook Islands.
Tonga in contrast with their opening opponents, American Samoa, did not take part in New Caledonia and have played just two matches since their South Africa 2010 campaign ended in September 2007. Despite their apparent period of inactivity, Tonga have been focussing on internal development with the squad training almost daily throughout much of this year.
Nevertheless with international football for the four participating teams at a premium, Tonga’s Australian coach Chris Williams believes a surprise victor could emerge. “For me, no one knows what to expect from us and, to a degree, we don’t know what to expect from ourselves as well,” he said.
While the humid conditions could favour American Samoa as they make the short trip to their neighbouring nation, history certainly does not. In four campaigns to date American Samoa have yet to record a point and are the continent’s only nation yet to claim a win in FIFA World Cup qualifying.
Crucial opening showdown
The second match in the opening round could ultimately prove to be the pivotal one with Cook Islands, highest of the quartet on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, matching up against Samoa. The hosts have the best record having defeated all three rivals since their FIFA World Cup qualifying debut in 1996. Coach of the host nation, Tunoa Lui, is of the view that success in the opening encounter will be fundamental to success saying, “I think this will be the toughest match.”
Samoa will go into the opening match buoyed by a 1-0 win over Fiji’s Suva in their final hit-out on Saturday. A key player for coach Tunoa Lui will be Desmond Fa’aiuaso, who, at 27-years-old, already has an international career spanning 12 years with the fleet-footed striker having also played in the New Zealand national league.
If hitting the ground running is one of the major hurdles to overcome, then Cooks Islands could be facing the biggest challenge with the nation of less than 30,000 inhabitants having recruited several nationals domiciled overseas. It is a factor of which Rufer is mindful. “The key for us now will be integrating the new players from Australia and New Zealand in a short time, but we’re confident going into our first game,” he said.