Solomon Islands will enjoy a rare moment in the spotlight when the Melanesian country hosts Round Two of Oceania qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™. The eight-team tournament will be the biggest-ever football event in the Solomons, a sprawling nation comprised of several hundred islands.
The hosts will have the chance to make their biggest impression since the memorable visit of Australia to the capital Honiara during qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. That qualifying tournament for Germany 2006 proved to be a breakthrough success, with the Solomons also reaching the Oceania Nations Cup final after a stunning 2-2 draw against Australia in Adelaide.
A crowd approaching 20,000 turned up at Lawson Tama Stadium to witness the Socceroos and their European-based stars visit Honiara. That represented a remarkable figure given the nation’s population numbers just over half a million, the vast majority of whom live away from the main island, Guadalcanal, where the capital is located. The team’s success also saw numerous players signed by clubs in other parts of the continent. It was a massive period of growth, and football in the archipelago has never been the same since.
Chance for salvation
If 2005 was a high point, then qualifying for South Africa 2010 provided a surprising low for Solomon Islands. A play-off defeat against Vanuatu in September 2007 saw the Solomons edged out of the next stage of qualifying and eliminated from contention before most of the global contenders had even taken to the field.
It has been a long wait of nearly five years but next month will finally see Solomons take the field again in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, with Papua New Guinea their first-up opponents. While they will have home ground advantage on their side, Solomon Islands have been dealt few favours by the draw, which also pits them against the traditionally strong Fiji and South Africa 2010 participants New Zealand.
The other group has a distinctively Francophone feel, with New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Tahiti joined by Round One qualifiers Samoa. The four semi-finalists will qualify for the third and final stage later this year, with the victor then facing an intercontinental play-off. On offer to the winner of the 1-12 June tournament - which doubles as the OFC Nations Cup - will be a berth at next year’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.
Old stars, new faces
Coach Jacob Moli, who has been boosted by the arrival of French assistant Laurent Papillon, has recently enjoyed the rare luxury of having a 30-man training squad together for a two-week period. The majority of that squad consists of players who only narrowly failed to win last year’s Pacific Games, with New Caledonia 2-1 winners on home turf in the final.
The squad is expected to be whittled down to 25 by the end of this week. Certain inclusions are two veterans of the Germany 2006 campaign, midfielder Alick Maemae who currently plies his trade with Vanuatu’s Amicale, and seasoned attacker Henry Fa’arodo of New Zealand national league finalists Team Wellington.
Moli says that he is satisfied with the core of the team that impressed last September in New Caledonia. “I can say that the current players in the national team have not lost their understanding of the system that we used last year and this is big plus for us,” said Moli. “The challenge will be to get the new players to have the same awareness of our system but I am confident that a solid foundation is already in place.”