Growth among Oceania elite
The field for the newly-expanded 2009/10 OFC O-League has been completed, with all seven nations having determined their participants for Oceania's premier club competition. Eight clubs will participate for the first time when the action commences in October having been expanded from last year's competition with the addition of two extra teams.
Clubs from the French-speaking nations of New Caledonia and Tahiti will take part this time around, with New Zealand again providing two participants. Waitakere United have qualified once more as New Zealand's representatives while reigning champions Auckland City join their cross-city rivals as favourites having also qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009. However, it is across the football-mad island nations of the Pacific where passion for football continues to grow exponentially.
If interest can be measured on a per capita basis, then the Solomon Islands is surely one of the world's football hotbeds. The Lawson Tama stadium in the capital Honiara regularly attracts numbers in excess of 10,000, and has reached twice that figure on numerous occasions. No mean feat for a nation numbering just over half a million, with the populace spread over hundreds of islands across the archipelago.
Typically, over 10,000 were on hand on a Wednesday night in June when the unfancied Marist club defied the odds by beating defending champions Koloale FC 1-0 in the domestic final to earn their ticket to the continental stage. Michael Patiti scored the crucial goal 11 minutes from full time to seal victory for Marist, who had not been club champions since 2006, having rode their luck in reaching the podium by scraping past Uncles FC on penalties in the semi-final. With a dose of such luck they will hope to go one better than their compatriots Koloale and Kossa, who have reached the last two O-League finals.
Last season's O-League surprise-packages, Papua New Guinea's Hekari Souths United, return again having finished top of their domestic league table at a canter. The team came within a whisker of reaching the 2009 O-League final in what would have been one of the nation's greatest football achievements.
Returning after a year's absence are Vanuatu representatives Tafea, who won the cup decider against Vaum United 4-1 at Port Vila's Municipal Stadium thanks to goals from national team stars Francisco Sakama, Jean Nako and Jeffrey Gete. In Fiji, Lautoka won a fiercely contested race to earn a maiden appearance in the O-League by finishing top of the table in the first round of the National Soccer League. In a breakthrough season, the Baby Blues ended Ba's run of three consecutive appearances in the O-League.
New Caledonia's long-time powerhouse AS Magenta will have the distinction of being the first club from the French-speaking territory to appear in Oceania's elite competition for three seasons. The club did though reach the final of the previous incarnation of the Oceania competition in 2005, and can count New Caledonia's talismanic striker Pierre Wajoka among their ranks.
Rounding out the competition are Tahiti's AS Manu-Ura, who are the nation's first participants for two seasons. Yet the draw though has not been kind to AS Magenta and AS Manu-Ura, who have been pitted alongside the two New Zealand representatives in Group A.