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    Articles related to OCEANIA 2006 WC qualifiers:

    Preview Apr 25, 2004
    Preview May 27, 2004
    Update May 30, 2004
    Update Jun 2, 2004
    Update Jun 4, 2004
    Update Jun 6, 2004
    Wrap-up Jun 28, 2004
    Update Sep 4, 2005
    Wrap-up Sep 19, 2005
    Preview Nov 8, 2005
    Update Nov 13, 2005
    Update Nov 16, 2005




    Preview: OCEANIA qualifiers, Stage 1

    by Paul Marcuccitti

        Welcome to the South Pacific folks. Do you feel like following some amateur soccer or would you rather work on that tan while sitting/lying on a spectacular island beach facing crystal clear water with a cool drink next to you and a row of palm trees behind you?

        Yes, I knew you'd go for the soccer. The first phase of Oceania's World Cup qualifiers is imminent. Why wait for the Czechs battling with the Dutch again when you know that soon the "French derby" between Tahiti and New Caledonia could be pivotal to who advances from Oceania Group 1?

        Ahhh, now did I mention Tahiti and New Caledonia? Where are their seats at the United Nations again? Can't find them?

        You have to be a fully independent nation to get into the UN but both are overseas territories of France. This is precisely why Blatter/Havelange (can't remember exactly who said it and don't really care) was able to boast that FIFA has more members than the UN. You don't get into the UN unless you're a fully independent nation. But FIFA will take you.

        In fact, four of the 12 teams in the up-coming Oceania qualifiers are not fully independent nations. Cook Islands is an "associated territory" of New Zealand and the name "American Samoa" is a bit of a giveaway.

        Oceania isn't alone. CONCACAF has even more members that aren't independent nations. Asia has some (e.g. Guam, Palestine) and in Europe, our old friends, the Faroe Islands, are not completely severed from Denmark.

        And I'm not saying that's a bad thing. By all means, let everyone take part. But, allowing them in means more minnows. Oceania is not short of minnows and we haven't always dealt with them particularly well. You probably know about the carnage that resulted from the last series of World Cup qualifiers (Australia 31 American Samoa 0). However, I'm not sure what the answer is. Is it silly to expect teams like American Samoa to play Australia or is it unfair to deny them the chance to? (Perhaps we should just ask them.)

        The system in place for the first stage of Oceania World Cup qualifiers is a definite improvement from the one used in the 2002 cycle. (But I can't say I'm entirely happy about the merging of the qualifiers and the Oceania Nations Cup.) I won't go into it too deeply as The Great Goldstein has already covered it. Simply, the 10 countries that aren't Australia or New Zealand are in two groups of 5 and the two top teams from each group join the "big two" in a second stage group of 6. Each group is being played in a single country and every team will play once against each of its group rivals (Group 1 is in the Solomon Islands, Group 2 is in Samoa; the second stage group of 6 teams will be in Australia).

        If you're not from Oceania, you might be wondering why some of our minnows rarely seem to put up the type of gritty underdog performance that you more often see from Liechtenstein, the Faroese, etc. Briefly, the reasons include: tiny populations (in some cases, quite scattered around lots of different islands); soccer not being the most popular sport; and poor development/infrastructure (though, in recent years, there has been some real progress on this front).

        At least one of those three applies to all of the 10 teams which are about to do battle in the first phase of the Oceania qualifiers. In many of those countries, at least two of the "problems" apply. [I only say "problems" with reference to fielding a competitive soccer team seeing as having a tiny population or soccer not being the most popular sport might not be deemed a problem in downtown Apia (capital of Samoa) or Nuku'alofa (capital of Tonga).]

        So here's a quick geography lesson which will, hopefully, go a long way to helping you understand the standard that each national team will normally have. I'll start with the countries in Group 1:

        Tahiti (French Polynesia) - An overseas territory of France; strong soccer culture; population of 262,000; even by South Pacific standards it's quite remote (it's the Oceania Confederation's easternmost country). FIFA Ranking = 135 (3rd in Oceania).

        Solomon Islands - Became independent from the United Kingdom in 1978; soccer is quite popular; population of 509,000; in recent years, it has been a rather unstable country. FIFA Ranking = 154 (5th in Oceania).

        New Caledonia - Another overseas territory of France with a strong soccer culture; population of 210,000; still not a full member of FIFA but it's probably just a matter of time. Not yet eligible for a FIFA ranking.

        Tonga - Independent from United Kingdom in 1970; rugby is the sport of choice (probably because of relative proximity to New Zealand and its territories); population of 108,000; over 30 inhabited islands. FIFA Ranking = 185 (9th in Oceania).

        Cook Islands - An associated territory of New Zealand so, unsurprisingly, rugby is the main game; population of just 21,000; the Cook Islands are also very remote and, to complicate matters further, there are big distances between islands. FIFA Ranking = 191 (10th in Oceania).

    And in group 2:

        Fiji - Independent from United Kingdom in 1970; both rugby and soccer are very popular and can be accommodated by a population of 868,000; has had some strong soccer links with Australia over the years. FIFA Ranking = 150 (4th in Oceania).

        Vanuatu - Independent from United Kingdom and France in 1980; strong soccer culture; population of 200,000 scattered over more than 90 islands. FIFA Ranking = 162 (6th in Oceania).

        Papua New Guinea - Independent from Australia in 1975; both codes of rugby and Australian Rules football are popular so soccer suffers a bit; population of 5,295,000 (more than New Zealand) but quite divided geographically. FIFA Ranking = 178 (7th in Oceania).

        Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) - Independent from New Zealand in 1962 and it's a very strong rugby nation (though some genuine soccer development has taken place in recent years); population of 178,000. FIFA Ranking = 181 (8th in Oceania).

        American Samoa - Unincorporated territory of the United States and, unsurprisingly, these Samoans like basketball, American football and baseball (but, strangely, not ice hockey); population of 70,000. FIFA Ranking = 203 (out of 204 countries; as you know, Montserrat is 204). (11th and last in Oceania).

        The order the teams are listed in (in each group) is the same order they have been seeded in so, in theory, each group is listed from strongest to weakest.

        Now, just a quick word on the "rugby" countries in this group. Samoa and Fiji are in international rugby's top dozen teams (and Tonga isn't too far behind). And while rugby superpowers like England, Australia and New Zealand would normally beat Samoa and Fiji, the big guns would never take the islanders lightly. (Indeed, Samoa, a former Rugby World Cup quarter-finalist, was leading England with just 15 minutes remaining in their match at last year's World Cup; England went on to win the tournament.) Make no mistake, these guys are good.

        But the down side of that, of course, is a less competitive Oceania confederation where our sport is concerned. The imbalances in Oceania don't do anyone in the zone any good - they just create the kind of problems I've mentioned in various articles on this site.

        Slowly things might be changing. There is noticeable improvement in various parts of the South Pacific and, later on when I talk about key players, you'll see that many of the teams have at least one up-and-coming star teenager and several other promising youngsters. (Scouts will, no doubt, be watching.) If nothing else, the May qualifiers will be an excellent indication of how far the smaller countries have progressed over the last three or four years.

        Well, enough of an introduction. Finish that cocktail, dust the sparkling grains of sand off your feet, fold up those sunglasses and join me in the serious business of predicting which four countries will join Australia and New Zealand in the next stage.

        In terms of finding the two teams that will succeed in each group, the more difficult to predict is Group 1. Tonga has very little chance of finishing in the first two and the Cook Islands did not even compete in either the 2002 Oceania Nations Cup or last year's South Pacific Games - never a good sign. But the other three teams are quite hard to separate. Tahiti came within minutes of upsetting Australia at the 2002 Oceania semi-finals but has more recently been overshadowed by the surging New Caledonians (which defeated Tahiti 4-0 at last year's South Pacific Games). The Solomon Islands aren't too far behind the French duo (perhaps not at all) and also have the advantage of hosting the group; every match will be a home match for the Solomons.

        I'm going to predict a bit of a surprise here and say the Tahitians will be squeezed out. It would be a real blow for the country that finished 3rd (behind New Zealand and Australia) at the last Oceania Nations Cup (and is Oceania's 3rd best team according to FIFA's rankings). But I expect New Caledonia's recent good form to continue and that the Solomons will gain enough home advantage to take second spot and win a ticket to the next stage in Australia. Just to prove I'm a true lunatic, I'm even going to predict how many points each team will finish with:

    P Pts New Caledonia 4 10 Solomon Islands 4 8 Tahiti 4 7 Tonga 4 3 Cook Islands 4 0
        You can probably see that I'm anticipating that: New Caledonia will beat Tahiti; the Solomon Islands will draw with both; all three will win their matches against Tonga and the Cook Islands; and Tonga will win the basement battle. The first match between any of the top three teams is New Caledonia v Tahiti and I suspect that will also be advantageous to the Solomons. They will know exactly what's required when it's their turn against their biggest group rivals.

        Group 2 looks a little more straightforward. More often than not, Fiji is the best non-Australia-or-New-Zealand team in Oceania and I expect the Fijians to qualify for the second stage. But Vanuatu will push them very hard and is the most likely team to join Fiji in Australia for the next phase.

        Normally you'd say that should be that. But there's a wild card here - Samoa is a big improver and the host for this group. I doubt the Samoans will gain enough from their home advantage to finish in the group's top two but I certainly wouldn't rule it out. Still, I'm going to predict a fairly clear cut outcome here:

    P Pts Fiji 4 12 Vanuatu 4 9 Samoa 4 6 Papua New Guinea 4 3 American Samoa 4 0
        The Fijians had a shocking (by their standards) Oceania Nations Cup in 2002 but last year they bounced back with victory at the South Pacific Games. It seems to be a little-known fact but Fiji once defeated Australia - and in a World Cup qualifier (in 1988). Australia recovered as it was a two-legged affair and the Socceroos recorded a 5-1 win in the second (and home) leg. The only other upset of that magnitude in Oceania World Cup qualifiers was Papua New Guinea's 1-0 win over New Zealand in 1997 (the Kiwis also recovered and eventually reached the traditional Oceanic Final against Australia). I'd be surprised to see similar heroics from PNG this time around.

        I'm yet to mention any of the players taking part. Who are the stars? Are certain players going to make a difference in games between evenly-matched teams?

        In Group 1, Tahiti will be looking to the experience of midfielders Teva Zaveroni - scorer of the goal which so nearly downed Australia in the 2002 Oceania Nations Cup - and Tetahio Auraa. Striker Felix Tegawa is also a fine player with experience in Australia's National Soccer League. His partnership with Naea Bennett will be crucial to Tahiti's chances. I'll personally be interested in the selection of goalkeeper. Xavier Samin is remembered for the blunder that allowed Australia to score a late equaliser in that famous 2002 encounter but his heroics were largely responsible for keeping the Socceroos scoreless until then. More recently, Daniel Tapeta has been preferred.

        The Solomons are certainly not lacking in attack. Indeed, if their "fab four" of Henry Fa'arodo, Commins Menapi, Batram Suri and Alick Maemae all fire, I'm certain they'll reach the second stage in Australia. All except Maemae have played in Australia's NSL - he's still a teenager and an outstanding prospect. Suri is a veteran (and Maemae's cousin) and Menapi also has plenty of experience. Fa'arodo is arguably the Solomons' best player but he was disappointing at last year's South Pacific Games.

        I bet the New Caledonians wish they could select Christian Karembeu but, unfortunately, they can't. (Though here's a thought: if/when they become a full FIFA member, could they argue that Karembeu is eligible to represent them on the grounds that when he was selected for France, playing FIFA sanctioned matches for his native New Caledonia was impossible?) Nevertheless, this is a very well balanced side. Captain Jean-Marc Case expertly leads New Caledonia's strong defence and Pierre Wajoka is an experienced midfielder/forward in a team that has plenty of goal-scoring potential. Michel Hmae and Ramon Djamali are New Caledonia's aces - both are strikers who have dominated in the more competitive Tahitian League.

        Tongan goalkeeper Kavakava Manumua starred in this year's Oceania Olympic qualifying tournament. Unfortunately, he's likely to be extremely busy if he's given the No. 1 jersey next month. Ipeni Fonua is a very good midfielder/forward and Unaloto Feao is a handy striker.

        We haven't seen much of the Cook Islands lately but they were at the Olympic qualifiers where Tuka Tisam emerged as a fine prospect. They're likely to field a young and inexperienced team but, hopefully, the Cook Islands' promising results at youth level will be repeated in future senior internationals.

        In group 2, Fiji will be expecting a lot from the magnificent Masis. Esala Masi is Fiji's star Australian-based striker and, arguably, the best player likely to be involved in Stage 1 of the Oceania qualifiers. His cousin, Manoa Masi, is an excellent midfielder. Versatile youngster Ratu Veresa Toma, midfielder Salesh Kumar and the promising Thomas Vulivuli all add extra class to this side. Teenage striker Osea Vakatalesau is tipped to have a bright future but I'm not sure he'll win a spot in the starting line up just yet. The Fijian defence might be a little suspect but it's unlikely to jeopardise a safe passage to Stage 2.

        Vanuatu's defence is usually quite good and expertly led by Graham Demas. He might have the job of marking Esala Masi when Vanuatu plays Fiji. Richard Iwai, currently playing in Australia, should be one of Vanuatu's main scoring threats and Seimata Chilia and Etienne Mermer (also Australian based) will be key players in the Vanuatu midfield. There will be big interest in teen sensation Jean Emmanuel "Victor" Maleb (and, no, not just because he has an excellent name). Young Maleb is a strong and speedy striker and last year he was given a two-week trial by English Premier League club, Southampton.

        If your surname is "Davani", there is a fair chance you'll be an important part of Papua New Guinea's team. John Davani is the coach; his son Reginald Davani is a key forward with experience in New Zealand's national league; and Alex Davani (Reg's younger brother) will be an important part of PNG's midfield (which will probably be built around the more experienced Richard Daniel). Another midfielder, Chique Posman, might also figure. He is one of this region's many teenage prospects. Coach Davani has also recalled defender Joe Aisa, a former captain of the national team. Aisa retired as a national team player two years ago so either Davani means business ... or he's desperate.

        Host Samoa also has a teenage sensation - and this guy is a story. The name is Desmond Fa'aiuaso. He played as a 16 year old in the 2001 Oceania World Cup qualifiers and scored four goals in an 8-0 win over American Samoa; he has been the leading scorer in Samoa's league for four consecutive seasons; last year he captained (yes, at his age) the Lepea club to victory in both Samoa's Premier League and its cup competition; and in January he starred in Samoa's much improved performance in Oceania's Olympic qualifiers. But here's the really amazing bit: a few weeks ago, Fa'aiuaso was representing Samoa again ... as a rugby player! In one of rugby's popular 7-players-a-side tournaments in Hong Kong, he debuted with three tries in a match against Chinese Taipei. (Just to remind you of the Samoans' rugby pedigree, they're currently in 6th place in this year's international Rugby 7s series - ahead of France and Australia.) A rugby correspondent watching the match asked if he might be a (rugby) star in the making! And, apparently, Samoa's national soccer coach didn't even know that Fa'aiuaso was in Hong Kong playing international rugby - he found out reading a local newspaper. (Presumably, on the following day, Sven Goran Eriksson turned on his television and saw David Beckham playing cricket for England in the Caribbean.) I hope Fa'aiuaso sticks with our sport and lines up for his country next month (but remember not to tackle rugby-style, Des, you might get sent off). Other players that will feature for Samoa include Michael Toleafoa (a handy foil for Fa'aiuaso at the Lepea club) and Ben Timo, another fine goal scorer. Pasi Schwalger is a very good goalkeeper currently playing his soccer in Australia.

        I hope that one day I can talk about star players in American Samoa but if I did so now the men in big white coats would probably come and take me away. As in most of the South Pacific countries, a lot of youth development has recently taken place in American Samoa but it will be a while before we see any results. The key position in any American Samoa team is goalkeeper and the No. 1 custodian Nicky Salapu isn't bad - even though he once conceded 31 goals in a single match. Duane Atuelevao is likely to be the pick of American Samoa's outfielders.

        So there you have it, the teams and players who will soon be striving to become kings of the South Pacific. Stage 1 of the Oceania qualifiers concludes on 19 May and, at that point, I'll give you an update along with a preview of Stage 2. The great news is that Stage 2 is being played in Adelaide, Australia - hometown of yours truly - so I'll be able to report to you straight from the touchline!

        I don't know if any of you, the readers, would be daft enough to contemplate betting on the basis of my predictions and, even if you are, I doubt you'll find a website offering markets on the first phase of Oceania qualifiers. But, hey, if you do find odds on Tahiti v New Caledonia, how many goals American Samoa will concede, etc, please send me the link!

    Now, where's that beach towel?


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