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Futsal returns to Oceania stage

OFC: It has been five years since the last Oceania qualifiers, so understandably the six teams lining up for the 2004 OFC Futsal World Cup Qualifying Tournament which kicks off in Canberra next week have every right to be itching to play.

The Oceania Football Confederation realised the long gap between tournaments given the developing status of futsal regionally. So in an effort to bring the teams up to speed, a Brazilian-born futsal expert Guillerme Costa, was sent to Fiji, Samoa and New Zealand to assist in the preparation of the respective national squads.

Coaching clinics were also held for local officials and players. The Solomon Islands, entering its first ever world cup qualifying tournament in futsal, were loaned the services of a futsal coach from Sydney.

Australia is again the hot favourite and with home advantage will be doubly tough to beat. But the overwhelming favouritism is not deterring five other countries from coming to Australia in an attempt to wrestle the title away and more importantly, the right to represent Oceania at the forthcoming FIFA Futsal World Champs in Chinese-Taipei in November.

The magnificent Arena Complex at the Australian Institute of Sport has been selected as the site for battle from 25-29 July 2004. The tournament format sees triple-header matches on each night with the winner to be decided on overall points according to the round robin league system in place.

Australia has assembled a formidable squad, albeit minus the brilliant Elliot Zwangobani who lit up the 1999 Oceania qualifying tournament in Port Vila. But the depth of Australian futsal with over 20,000 registered and active players at their disposal nationwide means they will lose little.

Traditionally Australia’s toughest foes, New Zealand is not as strong in futsal and lacks the numbers and profile which Australia enjoys. Ten of the 12 player squad derive from the highly touted East Auckland club. Skippered by Nathan Robertson, the New Zealanders will arrive in Canberra with better preparation than the under strength team which struggled in Vanuatu. Many of the players were involved on a tour of Australia after the qualifiers were called off last October.

Fiji, runners up to Australia in 1999, has not been able to build on that momentum when they performed beyond expectation. The Fiji FA organised an inter-district futsal tournament to select its squad with all the players brought in from the 11-a-side game due to futsal’s low profile.

Vanuatu have a organised league run annually in the capital Port Vila and also have what the other island countries lack, a quality indoor venue the Korman Stadium, which is perfect for futsal. Led by respected national coach Juan Carlos Buzzetti, a futsal enthusiast himself, Vanuatu is perhaps the team most likely to threaten Australia’s dominance along with New Zealand.

Samoa has assembled a team of outdoor specialists but there is a sprinkling of international experience at their disposal with at least three players returned from the squad which went to Vanuatu in 1999; Junior Michael, Dennis Bryce and Peko Victor. Against a strong futsal selection from Australia which visited Apia in 2003, Samoa surprised many by beating them with a team of players thrown together from the national 11-a-side squad.

The Solomon Islanders are the new kids on the block but have taken a liking to futsal which has seen the rapid rise in the game’s profile back in Honiara. This is largely due to the success of its junior national boys and girls team which have done remarkably well at the Australian National State Futsal Championships over the past two years. The known skill-level of the Solomons players is well suited to futsal. They have selected a team of fringe national 11-a-side players that have trained on outdoor basketball courts due to the lack of facilities.


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