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Teams learn path to U-17 finals

OFC General Secretary Tai Nicholas was on hand to conduct the draw at the OFC headquarters, along with Deputy General Secretary Greg Larsen, Technical Director Patrick Jacquemet and Head of Competitions David Firisua.

The Oceania qualifiers will be held in Auckland, New Zealand next year from January 8 to 19 while the FIFA U-17 World Cup is scheduled to run from June 18 to July 10.

Hosts and defending champions New Zealand have been drawn in Group A for the OFC championship and will face American Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu while Group B consists of Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Tonga.

The teams in each group will play each other once – each team will also have a bye – before the final and 3rd/4th playoff games take place on Wednesday 19 January. The champions will go on to tackle the best young players on the planet at the FIFA finals in Mexico.

A piece of history will be created when the teams arrive in Auckland for the OFC tournament next year. Ten is a record number of nations for an Oceania age-group qualifier and OFC General Secretary Tai Nicholas is delighted to see such a high turnout.

“This means even more talented players from around the Pacific will get to compete at the highest level in Oceania,” Nicholas says. “It will give them the chance to test their skills against the best and provides a platform to progress in their careers.”

This year’s event will be the 11th edition of the tournament and hosts New Zealand will go in as favourites.

The Kiwis enjoyed a fairly straightforward path to the title during the last OFC U-17 Championship in 2009, scoring seven goals in wins over Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Tahiti and conceding none.

But they may face a sterner examination of their abilities this time due to the increased number of teams and the fact that plenty of top young talent is emerging across the other Pacific nations. Academies for players aged between 13 and 16 have been established in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and many of those young stars have now come through the ranks and will represent their countries in Auckland.

Members of the New Zealand football community do not need to have long memories to recall the last time one of their teams failed to justify its tag as favourites at an OFC youth tournament. New Zealand were fancied to take out the OFC U-20 Championship title in 2008 but finished third behind hosts Tahiti and runners-up New Caledonia.

The U-17 players will be keen to avoid a repeat but will also hope to follow in the footsteps of their country’s Football Ferns, who became the most recent Pacific side to qualify for a FIFA World Cup when they won the OFC Women’s Nations Cup in October.

The previous New Zealand U-17 team has also left the current incumbents with some big boots to fill. The Steve Cain-coached side wrote themselves into the record books last year by becoming the first OFC nation to make it past the group stages at a FIFA World Cup.

New Zealand drew 1-1 with Costa Rica, Burkina Faso and Turkey before being knocked out by hosts Nigeria in the round of 16.