It has been a long wait for Oceania’s eight leading nations, but finally the chance to shine on the biggest stage of all has arrived. The OFC Nations Cup commences in Papua New Guinea on Saturday, with a ticket to the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 awaiting the victor of the 11 June final. The tournament also doubles as Stage Two of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying, with the top six teams progressing to a home-and-away Stage 3. The winner of that stage will then meet a CONMEBOL opponent for a ticket to Russia 2018.
For now though, it is all eyes on the Papua New Guinea capital Port Moresby, where two groups of four will line-up. The tournament is part of a massive year for football in the Melanesian nation, who in November-December, will host the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
The 2016 OFC Nations Cup takes place nearly four years to the day since the last edition, which was won for the first time by Tahiti. It was unexpected success for the Polynesians and their fairytale achievement propelled them all the way to the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil. With most of the Pacific Island nations enjoying considerable preparation time, a similar upset cannot be ruled out. *FIFA.com *runs the rule over the eight participants.
The favourites *
*New Zealand, as always, will start as solid favourites but not all the cards are stacked in favour of the All Whites, least of all PNG's cloying humidity. Under young coach Anthony Hudson, the New Zealanders are in the midst of a significant rebuilding process, with only a handful of survivors from their breakthrough 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign remaining - Chris Wood and Michael McGlinchey among them. While the squad is highly inexperienced, the forward line offers perhaps more x-factor than ever before, with Marco Rojas, Kosta Barbarouses and Jeremy Brockie all capable of individual brilliance.
The contenders *
Boasting a lengthy history by Oceanian standards, *Fiji, after several years of underachievement, appear ready to return to former glories. It has been 12 months of unimaginable highs for the Fijians, who qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup and Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, both for the first time. Now coached by former Australia boss Frank Farina, Fiji are led in attack by arguably the Pacific’s most recognisable name – Roy Krishna of A-League club Wellington Phoenix.
*New Caledonia *also have a long history in the game, thanks in part to their French connection, though they are one of FIFA newest members, having joined the world governing body only in 2004. The team’s visit to PNG could, quite conceivably, be their breakthrough moment. *Les Cagous *defeated New Zealand in the semi-final last time, and this year they are again lining up with several well-credentialed France-based professionals.
Much focus will of course be on hosts Papua New Guinea. Appearing in just their fourth FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, PNG seem on the cusp of making a serious impact. The high-energy *Kapuls *have veteran Danish coach Flemming Serritslev offering experience and guidance.
Samoa, just as they did four years ago, won through to the tournament having triumphed in Stage 1. They lost their three matches by hefty margins last time, but the Polynesian outsiders enjoyed a lengthy build-up in New Zealand and appear better equipped than ever before.
It has been 12 years since *Solomon Islands *stunned the region by reaching the final ahead of New Zealand, but the Melanesians have since flattered to deceive. This time a well-rounded squad looks extremely impressive, with highly-decorated Auckland City coach Ramon Tribulietx offering technical support.
*Tahiti *came to world attention last time with their win over Francophone rivals New Caledonia in the final, and subsequent appearance at Brazil 2013. But many key personnel from that campaign are no longer around, including local icon Marama Vahirua. The challenge facing the *Toa Aito *seems a significant one.
*Vanuatu *flattered to deceive four years ago and, after a decade of growth, they crashed out early in 2012. Vanuatu remain something of an unknown quantity this time, but a stunning 4-2 win over New Zealand in 2004 – a performance that was as explosive as it was unexpected – proves they are capable of anything on their day.
Player to watch
*The career of Solomon Islands’ attacking midfielder *Micah Lea’alafa has been on a constant upward trajectory in recent years. Following a two-goal player-of-the-match showing for Auckland City in last month’s OFC Champions League decider, this tournament seems perfectly timed for the 24-year-old – who is also a Futsal international – to show his undoubted star power to a wider audience.
1 – Tahiti are the only nation other than New Zealand, or former OFC member Australia, to have won Oceania’s continental crown.
*"I must make it absolutely clear that we approach the Nations Cup with humility and a lot of respect for our opponents. We know what we have to do, but there is no way we underestimate any of our opponents.” *New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson