The seven Pacific teams competing in OFC U-20 Championship are putting the finishing touches to preparations they hope will end in qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011.
The Oceania qualifiers will take place from April 21 to 29 at Auckland’s Centre Park in Mangere, when the winner takes the spotm representing Oceania in Colombia. Set to fight it out for the spot are the finest young players on offer from American Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
The 18th edition of the tournament is likely to be one of the most competitive yet and hosts New Zealand – who have won the title only three times before – are sure to face strong challenges from several of the other Pacific Island 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.
But, despite not qualifying for the U-20 World Cup on a regular basis previously, New Zealand’s Junior All Whites are strong favourites for the Oceania title and a quick glance at the squad list selected by coach Chris Milicich reveals why.
Of that talented group, Musa and Rojas are names already familiar to fans in this part of the world after featuring for the Wellington Phoenix in the A-League, while Rojas also made his debut for the senior All Whites in the 1-1 draw with China last month.
“I think it’s a strong squad and will do the job we ask it to,” Milicich says. “Qualification is not assured and we went out of our way to make sure at least 10 of the boys are based here and have trained and played together. It’s a strong base and we expect the boys coming in from offshore to strengthen that.”
The hosts have been drawn in the three-team Group B and will come up against Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. Both sides are expected to prove tough propositions – the Solomons squad is packed full of skill and flair while New Caledonia finished runners-up at the last OFC U-20 Championship in 2008.
The majority of the Solomon Islands squad, known as the Mamulas, have been plucked from newly-established national competition the Telekom S-League and a large number are regulars for their clubs, such as Kossa defenders William Lamani and Michael Sira, and Solomon Warriors youngster Dennis Ifunaoa.
Coach Noel Wagapu is approaching the tournament in a determined frame of mind.
“All the teams in this competition have prepared well and nobody will be there to lose,” he says. “But we want to come out on top and have worked towards achieving that goal for the last three months.”
New Caledonia counterpart Stéphane Drahusak says his team’s preparations have been disrupted due to changes in personnel.
“The group has been remodeled slightly since our first selection in January,” he says. “Some players have been able to join up with the team and have seized their chance. Everyone has worked hard in the training sessions and the squad has progressed nicely.”
Group A is made up of four teams and includes several sides with realistic ambitions of pushing for a place in the final. American Samoa are the underdogs of the tournament and are likely to find the going tough against group rivals Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.
But the other sides will all view failure to progress past the group stages as a disappointment and are genuine contenders for a semi-final berth.
The Fijian squad has prepared very extensively – the players have been together since January last year and arrived in Auckland a month ago – while the foundations of Vanuatu’s campaign have also been laid for some time. The youth academy run by the Vanuatu Football Federation is now starting to bear fruit, as was proven with a fourth-place finish at the OFC U-17 Championship in January, and the squad features a number of players who have enjoyed impressive seasons in senior competition the TVL Premier League, such as Tupuji Imere striker Silas Frank.
Two players from the U-17 squad, goalkeeper Selonie Iaruel and striker Jean Kaltak, have stepped up a level and will be hoping for a similar high placing this time. Vanuatu have warmed-up for the event with a couple of friendly wins and coach Moise Poida is happy with the mentality of his players.
“We are looking forward to taking part after two years of training at our academy,” he says. “The boys have picked up and their spirit is good. I hope they remain this way and improve positively during the tournament.”
The winner of the OFC U-20 Championship will go on to represent OFC at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia from July 29 to August 20.