London calling in Oceania

The journey for Oceanian nations seeking passage to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 begins this Friday in New Zealand. Seven teams will contest a total of 13 matches over nine days to determine the region’s representative. The overall winner will be the 13th nation to reach London 2012, with only two CONCACAF qualifiers, and the winner of a play-off between an African and Asian representative, yet to be determined.

Oceania’s aspirants have been divided into two groups, which will be followed by semi-finals and the all-important final on 24 March. Group A consists of American Samoa, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, while the other section features Tonga, hosts New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Favourites and Beijing 2008 qualifiers New Zealand received a boost with the tournament moved from Fiji to the cooler climes of Taupo. More famous as a stopping point for tourists, the regional centre on New Zealand’s north island – mid-way between the major cities of Auckland and Wellington – is hosting its biggest football event to date. The tournament also marks the first time since 1996 that a New Zealand-based OFC event has been held outside of Auckland.

Kiwis lead charge
Host nation New Zealand, Oceania’s representative in Beijing, will start as strong favourites if history and squad personnel are any gauge. The majority of their 20-man roster compete in New Zealand’s domestic competition, but there is nevertheless significant experience within their ranks.

There are two senior national team players, namely goalkeeper Jake Gleeson of MLS side Portland Timbers and Melbourne Victory midfield flyer Marco Rojas. Coach Neil Emblen has also been able to include two players who competed in New Zealand’s Olympic campaign four years ago in Greg Draper of Welsh club The New Saints and Auckland City fullback Ian Hogg. “With their experience of professional football, Olympic Games or senior international football, we expect them to be leaders on and off the field in what will be a testing tournament,” said Emblen of the quartet.

Not only are the boys trying to get the country to the Olympics, they are playing for places.
New Zealand coach Neil Emblen

On the debit side, Kosta Barbarouses, Tommy Smith and Chris Wood – the latter duo being key players for the All Whites at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ - are all unavailable due to club commitments. Given these absentees, and the fact three overage players can be utilised at London 2012, Emblen was quick to point out that there is extra motivation for his squad, saying: “Not only are the boys trying to get the country to the Olympics, they are playing for places knowing players are likely to be coming in if the team is successful in getting to the games."

The Kiwis’ major group rivals are likely to be Papua New Guinea, who have experience of their own to call upon, albeit on the coaches bench. Former long-serving Australia coach Frank Farina will be behind PNG’s push for London, with their opener against New Zealand likely to be crucial. Farina, who spent part of his childhood in Papua New Guinea, coached the Socceroos between 1999 and 2005, leading the team in two FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns in the Oceania region. “My knowledge and experience of teams in Oceania will put me in good stead,” said Farina. “This country has the talent and the mental game to prove themselves in the region."

Even contest
Group A is set to provide an intriguing spectacle with Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu having proven themselves at continental level on numerous occasions down the years. While the fourth nation, American Samoa, are traditionally underdogs at tournaments such as these, the Polynesians are at an all-time high following the senior national team’s historic exploits in last November’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier.

Solomon Islands are renowned for their skilful and technically gifted players, and coach Luke Eroi has indicated his team will play a possession brand of football. Much like New Zealand’s opener against PNG, the Solomons first match against Fiji could prove pivotal. Seeking to build further upon a strong historical record, the Fijians have seen their preparations hampered by flooding in their homeland. Vanuatu, who enter the tournament quietly confident, open against American Samoa, who are able to include seven members of the side which achieved breakthrough results in Brazil 2014 qualifying.