Oceania’s four-stage journey to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ journey begins in the low key environs of Tonga’s tree-lined Loto-Tonga Soka Centre on Monday. The home to the national association on the main island of Tongatapu will provide the setting as American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and the host nation take to the field. It will be a world away in every sense from that which will host 32-nations in mid 2018, but the tournament in Nuku’alofa represents the opportunity for the quartet to realise their own dreams.
Just a single ticket to Round 2 will be on offer where the other seven OFC nations – Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu – await. That stage will double as the continental championship meaning FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 qualification will also be on the line.
Aside from that considerable carrot, the leading six nations will secure passage to Round 3 which will be played on a home and away basis. From there, the top OFC nation will tackle a South American opponent for a ticket to Russia 2018. For now though the battle for regional glory will take place over just three matchdays concluding on Friday.
*The favourites *
*Samoa *have constantly proven themselves as top dogs among the quartet at both international and club level. The most populous of the four nations, Samoa edged top spot four years ago, while their club sides invariably do likewise in the OFC Champions League where a similar regional competition format applies. Nevertheless, even with the advantage of home conditions in 2011, Samoa’s progress to Stage 2 was in danger until the final moments of their third and final match, which indicates the gap is narrowing. This time a relatively inexperienced Samoa side has been boosted by the return to the international stage of striker local poster boy Desmond Fa’aiuaso
*American Samoa *proved to be one of the great stories of the entire 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil qualifying campaign. Ten years on since a world record defeat, the American Samoans claimed their first ever international win and came within a whisker of an unlikely qualification for the next stage. This time the team have enjoyed a lengthy preparation in USA under 2011 assistant coach Larry Mana’o and seem a vastly improved side boasted by several players based Stateside.
*Cook Islands *have also enjoyed a solid preparation under young Welsh coach Drew Sherman. The locally based players have trained together consistently for several months, while a New Zealand-based contingent of Cook Islander diaspora have done likewise as a group. Four years ago the Cook Islands - a nation with one of the world’s smallest populations – experienced a troubled campaign, yet still proved competitive.
Host nation *Tonga *remain perhaps the least prepared of the quartet, although they will of course be boosted by home advantage. The team broke a lengthy absence from the international stage just last week but suffered a 5-0 defeat away to Fiji. On the positive side, there will be a level of familiarity within the group with numerous players hailing from perennial champions Lotoha'apai United.
*Player to watch
* Athletic 29-year-old striker Ramin Ott, who is set to play in his third FIFA World Cup campaign, proved a key figure four years ago most notably scoring in the team’s storied maiden international win. This time Ott, who has served in the US military, has been named captain.
1 – There was no more than a single goal difference across the six matches when this quartet shaped up four years ago indicating the closeness of competition in the region.
The words *
“This team is very different from 2011. Four years ago that team was strong but quiet. This team, they are very strong and loud.” *American Samoa coach Larry Mana’o