The FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 may seem to be in the distant future, but the road to the world stage has already commenced. It all kicked off early last month in Apia, the sleepy palm-tree lined capital of Samoa, and a venue that could hardly be any further removed from the bustle, noise and colour of the second largest nation on earth.
Four Polynesian aspirants took to the field jousting to win a lone ticket to next February’s OFC U-17 Championship in Tahiti. Samoa normally start as favourites when lined up against neighbours American Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga. But the football landscape is changing on Oceania’s eastern border, with Cook Islands recently winning the preliminary stage of competition in the race for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Similarly, Samoa needed goal difference to progress through the opening stage of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers.
*Joy and anguish *
Once again, Samoa survived by the narrowest of margins, but the tight and intense competition provided yet further evidence of a shift. Needing just a draw in their final outing, Cook Islands were surely dreaming of a visit to Tahiti’s sun-kissed shores as the clock hit 90 minutes, only for football to once again prove what an unkind game it can be. Samoa struck twice during injury time, firstly through Osa Savelio, and then captain Willie Saulima, to the unbridled joy of the locals and the anguish of the Cook Islanders.
Samoa’s youngest national team benefited from the expertise of coach and national team attacking star Desmond Faaiuaso, fresh from his exploits at the recent OFC Nations Cup. Since the turn of the century, Faaiuaso has been a feisty and productive outlet for Samoa. A stint in New Zealand’s national league – the first Samoan to do so – saw his status as a local football icon shored up.
Now he faces a very different challenge on the sidelines, and looking towards a match-up with the continent’s best next February. “I was very nervous until the last few minutes when we scored two beautiful goals,” said Faaiuaso. “It was a great performance, and I’m very lucky to have this group of players, who are very special.”
For Cook Islands coach Richard Anderson, the finale to the tournament proved a painful case of déjà vu. The Englishman was assistant coach for the senior team when they were overhauled by Samoa in similar circumstances during the Russia 2018 campaign.
Tonga managed to secure third place with a win and a draw, the latter against winners Samoa. It provides a much-needed boost for the proud Tongans following their fruitless Russia 2018 campaign on home soil last year. The recent achievement will have particularly pleased coach Timote Moleni who also looks after the nation’s senior team.
American Samoa fielded eight players who played in the preliminary stage of U-20 qualifiers, which concluded in Tonga just days earlier. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, midfielder Masila Siua was part of the squad at the tender age of just 13.
*Building a solid base *
A focus on ball possession and passing was another theme throughout the tournament, all of which points to a bright future for Oceania’s broadening talent base. Similarly, an increasing focus is to put in place the basic tools needed to be a senior national team player.
“It’s important for us as an association to use opportunities like this to ensure our boys get valuable experience against other international teams,” said Anderson. “By the time they reach senior level they will have these international experiences under their belt and hopefully that bodes well for Cook Islands in future major tournaments.”
The OFC U-17 Championship will take place in Papeete between 11-24 February. Group A of the eight-team event features Tahiti, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea, while Fiji, Solomon Islands and Samoa will have to face up to champions New Zealand on the other side of the draw.