Oceania gear up to compete for sole Tokyo 2020 ticket
OFC Men's Olympic Qualifiers 2019 commence on 21 September
Eight teams will compete for one spot at Tokyo 2020
Hosts Fiji will look to defend continental crown
The latest ticket up for grabs at next year's highly-anticipated Men's Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo 2020 is in Oceania, where eight nations will compete in the OFC Men's Olympic Qualifiers chasing one coveted spot at the Olympic Games.
Hosts Fiji will look to defend their crown after the Bula Boys won their maiden title in the competition back in 2015, earning landmark participation at Rio 2016 in the process.
Dates: 21 September - 5 October Host country: Fiji Group A: American Samoa, New Zealand, Samoa, Solomon Islands Group B: Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Vanuatu
Three-time OFC Men's Olympic qualifying champions New Zealand will be motivated to get back to the Olympic Games having missed out at Rio 2016. Four years ago New Zealand were eliminated from contention after fielding an ineligible player during the OFC semi-final.
The current team, led by head coach Des Buckingham (above), are well prepared to atone for that disappointment. The Kiwis are coming off some strong recent performances with two 1-1 draws against Australia, results they reprised against A-League clubs Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers.
"We have built a strong identity over recent months, focusing on who we are and what we are capable of doing," Buckingham said. "There is a lot of belief and trust in our players, who are encouraged to express their abilities in a positive and supportive environment."
Buckingham was in charge of the New Zealand team that advanced to the Round of 16 and finished in 11th place at the recent FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019, the nation's best-ever performance in that age-group world finals.
"We have been able to continue building on the past 18 months of work, both on and off the field, that includes the success at the U-20 World Cup and then the recent gold medal at the Pacific Games."
New Zealand arrive in Fiji boasting five players with senior international experience; Liberato Cacace, Clayton Lewis, Myer Bevan, Logan Rogerson and Noah Billingsley.
“We know that going to the islands is never easy,” said Cacace who featured prominently under Buckingham at Poland 2019. “Our style will be pretty similar to what we played in the [U-20] World Cup.”
A strong field will be eyeing New Zealand’s traditional status as regional heavyweights. With Tahiti and New Caledonia ineligible to qualify for the Olympic Games, only Oceania’s smallest nation - Cook Islands - will not be lining up in Fiji.
As holders and hosts Fiji will be looking to maintain momentum from the last cycle. Qualification for Rio 2016 was earned just a matter of weeks after their FIFA tournament debut at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
A couple of players are backing up from that landmark U-20 campaign. Fiji prepared for their Tokyo 2020 push with two narrow losses against Singapore earlier this month.
Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are well placed to feature at the business end of the tournament, with the latter finishing third four years ago. The former are coached by the iconic Batram Suri and can count on strong support from the local expat community.
Vanuatu will be another side hungry for revenge as they came devastatingly close to qualifying for the Olympic Games last time out, only to lose 4-3 on penalties against Fiji.
Coached by legendary former national team Etienne Mermer, Vanuatu will be hard to beat in familiar Melanesian surrounds. “Vanuatu is on track,” Mermer said in regards to the team’s preparation. “We know how we work and play and it’s all about dedication and commitment.”