Eight nations will finally have the chance to test their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ credentials when the OFC Nations Cup commences on Friday in the Solomon Islands. The opening whistle will, for several contenders among the globe’s most remote confederation, mark the end of a five-year wait to vie for a return to the FIFA World Cup stage.
Most notably, it has been a particularly long absence for tournament hosts Solomon Islands who, having reached the final stage of Oceania qualifying for Germany 2006, saw their push for South Africa 2010 end with a first-stage elimination way back in September 2007. Now the Solomons are not only seeking on-field redemption, but the nation has the chance to show its organisational capabilities with what has been described as the biggest sporting event to be held in the Melanesian archipelago.
There is much excitement in the Solomon Islands for the ten-day tournament, where passion for the game is undeniable. Five-figure crowds regularly fill the natural bowl at Honiara’s Lawson Tama Stadium; no mean feat for a nation of 500,000 inhabitants, many of whom live away from the main land mass.
The Solomons, though, have been dealt a tough task if they are to reach the semi-finals and progress to the third and final stage of Oceania qualifying for Brazil 2014. Their opponents in Group B will be continental champions New Zealand, long-term Pacific heavyweights Fiji, plus fast-developing Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile, the other group has a distinctly Francophone feel with New Caledonia, Tahiti and Vanuatu lining up alongside Round 1 winner Samoa. The tournament victor will represent Oceania at next year’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.
The Solomon Islands traditionally favour a fast and dynamic brand of attacking football, exemplified by unpredictable attacking duo Benjamin Totori and Henry Fa’arodo. Turning the team’s natural attacking tendencies into winning results, while at the same time dealing with the pressure of large home crowds, is the task facing coach Jacob Moli and the team’s French technical advisor Laurent Papillon. "I believe this team can achieve a lot if everyone invests the right attitude, effort and determination," said Papillon. "There are a lot of expectations for the national team. The players here are under a lot of pressure and we have to consider that."
Undoubtedly the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Bonitos, and their massive fan base, is New Zealand. Ricki Herbert’s side have grown immeasurably since the start of the last FIFA World Cup cycle, ending a 28-year drought by reaching South Africa, where they remained undefeated against Paraguay, Slovakia and world champions Italy. Their preparations have been minimal, yet impressive, with the All Whites this week drawing against El Salvador before defeating Honduras, following a year of virtual inactivity.
New Zealand will have to make do without inspirational skipper Ryan Nelsen and fellow defender Winston Reid due to injury, but are otherwise at full strength. The Kiwis will also have to overcome debilitating heat in Honiara, but star striker Shane Smeltz believes the team’s destiny is in their own hands.
“The conditions will be tough and so will the teams we come up against but we know what to expect," said Smeltz. “Most of the boys have been to the islands before and know what’s coming our way. We really feel it’s down to us and if we can play our game and be mentally strong in these games we can come out on top.”
Fiji, whose FIFA World Cup history dates back to 1981, further than any other Pacific Island nation, are expected to again be a major threat. Four years ago, Fiji were the only nation to defeat New Zealand during their entire campaign, and in Carlos Buzzetti, they have a coach who has vast knowledge of the region. The team is a mixture of youth and experience with several players plying their trade off shore at some of the region’s top clubs, such as Hekari United and Amicale. The team’s leading figure is striker Roy Krishna, who, as a key attacker for New Zealand champions Waitakere United, can lay claim to being the best credentialed forward amongst the Pacific nations.
Papua New Guinea face a massive task to qualify despite the presence of former Australia coach Frank Farina, who last year linked with the nation where he spent much of his childhood. PNG didn’t feature in 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying, although the nation has started to make its mark internationally on the back of Hekari’s stunning OFC O-League win in 2010 and subsequent appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup. Nevertheless, Farina describes his team as “underdogs without any question."
While the continent’s traditional big names reside in Group B, the key trio in the other group – New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Tahiti – will all fancy their chances of success. Samoa, having edged through Round 1 against their Polynesian neighbours, will commence as outsiders. The Samoans who, will kick-off the tournament with an opening match against Tahiti, have been dealt a significant blow with striker Desmond Fa'aiuaso, goalkeeper Masi Toetu and midfield duo Jared Curtis and Shaun Easthope, all unavailable.
Tahiti, possessors of a proud football history, will be looking to build on last year’s bronze medal at the Pacific Games. However, winning through to the semi-final will mean overcoming either Vanuatu or New Caledonia, both of whom reached the final four last time around. New Caledonia appear well equipped for success, led up front, as they are, by Bertrand Kai and Georges Gope-Fenepej. The latter starred at the Pacific Games hitting ten goals from seven matches to pick up the Golden Boot award. Vanuatu’s young side are largely untested at this level, but their natural athletic and football ability cannot be questioned and newly appointed coach Percy Avock remains confident of success.
All matches of the OFC Nations Cup are streamed live on www.oceaniafootball.com