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Who will reign supreme in Fiji?

OFC: It was last year in Suva during a meeting between the OFC and South Pacific Games Council that football’s return to the South Pacific Games became a reality. It was agreed the tournament would be run under FIFA regulations paving the way for the world’s most popular game to once again take centre stage in the most important sporting event in the Pacific Islands.

The last South Pacific Games football tournament was held in 1995 and was won by hosts Tahiti, who are the most successful country since the South Pacific Games started in 1963 winning the gold medal five times (once as French Polynesia in 1966). New Caledonia has won the title on four occasions with Fiji the only country to have won in 1991 when the Games were hosted by Papua New Guinea.

Since 1995, the standard of football in the Pacific Islands has increased dramatically and at youth level, the gaps have closed considerably with the two Oceania giants of Australia and New Zealand.

The island nations still lag behind those two countries in terms of player base, resources and experience of its players consistently exposed to a higher level of football overseas. But local development and passion for the game is progressing rapidly and some of the island nations such as Fiji, Vanuatu, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have already begun exporting their best talent to Australia and New Zealand to gain more experience.

In light of the progress being made in the island nations, the 2003 South Pacific Games football tournament is expected to be the most fiercely contested in years. Most of the island nations entered for the men’s group are very serious about winning the gold medal going by their respective preparations leading up to the SP Games which commences on 28 June.

Tahiti has twice had camps since the beginning of the year. New Caledonia has completed a tour of Australia. Fiji has had several camps over the past four months and just finished a tough three match series with the visiting Victoria State Federation team from Australia. Many of the players also toured with the Fiji select team to Australia late last year. The Solomon Islands played a two-match series with visiting Australian club team Palm Beach and last week travelled to Port Moresby to play Papua New Guinea in a friendly international. Vanuatu has also had six warm-up games against top premier clubs in Port Vila.

Here’s how the leading contenders stack up:

TAHITI: The reigning champions are reluctantly tagged as favourites, but team coach and Tahiti Football Federation technical director, Patrick Jacquemet confided that it will be extremely difficult to defend their title given the rapid improvements being made in the region. He believes any of six island nations can win the gold medal and predicts an intense competitive struggle between all the teams.

Officially, Tahiti is the top ranked island nation in the FIFA rankings released monthly. After its third placing at the 2002 OFC Nations Cup, Tahiti leapfrogged the Fijians. Jacquemet believes the disappointing showing in Auckland last July will motivate Fiji in rising to the occasion especially in front of their home supporters.

A fortunate draw means Tahiti has avoided facing Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands in the pool stages but will expect a torrid time none-the-less from New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea. Tonga’s physical style may also unsettle the Tahitians.

On paper though, Tahiti has one of the strongest squads built on experience and strength in all positions with perhaps a question mark on their defence. The key players are definitely strikers Felix Tagawa and Naea Bennett. Tagawa is the stronger scorer of the pair and this year signed a contract to play for the Brisbane Strikers in Australia’s National Soccer League scoring a goal on debut. Tahiti also has a versatile midfield with attacking playmaker Tony Senechal and Teva Zaveroni teaming up with defensive specialist and incumbent captain Tetahio Auraa. Steve Fatipua provides speed on the flanks from wing back. Tahiti’s play is very structured and more organised in contrast to the open styles adopted by the Melanesian countries. The French influence and experience makes for a team capable of maintaining its composure in pressure-cooker situations which will be vital in Fiji.

FIJI: Playing at home and with plenty of motivation to fuel the players, the Fijians are strongly predicted to be the team to challenge the Tahitians in a dream final. But it won’t be as easy as many think, in fact just to make the semi-finals will be an achievement in itself with the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to contend with in the pool stages.

They are the two teams most likely to cause the Fijians problems and under the format, only two of the three will advance to the semi-finals from their group. Fiji has a score to settle in the all important first match against Vanuatu. Vanuatu toppled Fiji 1-0 at last year’s OFC Nations Cup.

The fallout has seen a change in coaches from Billy Singh, to Les Scheinflug, and now Tony Buesnel. The Solomon Islands will also be a difficult assignment with their attacking flair, perhaps the most potent of all the teams. Fiji’s all round strength and skill coupled with its physical superiority cannot be underestimated however.

The most obvious weakness is in its defence which has received more bad news with the omission of experienced central defender Viliame Toma for disciplinary reasons. Australian based striker Esala Masi will be the team’s match-winner. But the midfield will have to step up its service if he is to make an impact. The other factor that has the potential to undo the team are the high expectations of the locals and pressure to win with morale not as high as in past years. How the team handles the pressure will determine their fate.

SOLOMON ISLANDS: National coach George Cowie was understandably disappointed after the poor showing of the Solomon Islands during last year’s OFC Nations Cup.

With such a talented line-up at his disposal, the national team drew against Papua New Guinea, was outclassed by New Zealand then blew a 2-0 lead against Tahiti to lose 3-2. No excuses were offered, but Cowie did they the team was better on a better playing surface referring to the dismal condition of the North Harbour ground which was affected much by the adverse weather in New Zealand at that time of the year.

With the need to redress last year’s disappointments and also losing in the SP Games final in 1995, there is motivation aplenty.

On paper, the Solomon Islands have awesome strike power in the form of veteran Batram Suri and Australian based duo, Commins Menapi and Henry Fa’arodo. Cowie has had mixed success trying to blend this talent into a winning combination but they have been impressive in their recent warm-up matches winning all three against quality opposition.

The lead up form is a marked contrast to last year and the sight of Fa’arodo, Menapi and Suri running freely and most importantly scoring goals is something that will be on the back of the minds of the other teams, particularly Fiji and Vanuatu. While the Solomons have the marquee names to suggest they will be one of the most exciting attacking sides in Fiji, their defence will need to be equal to the task.

VANUATU: Vanuatu is a sleeping giant and will be a will be a force to reckon with in Fiji. Vanuatu is definitely the most improved of the island nations over the past two years.

They have an excellent young team led superbly by former Australian assistant and Uruguayan born coach/technical director Carlos Buzzetti. Their strengths lay in sound organisation all-round, competent defensive backs and a brilliant midfield led by Australian based Seimata Chilia, who was one of the stars of the 2002 OFC Nations Cup.

The squad is essentially young and lack the experien
ce of the other big teams such as Tahiti, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. But under Buzzetti the core of the players have been together since the 1999-2000 season and have developed a good understanding on the field.

Buzzetti has resisted promoting several of his young up and coming stars from the highly successful national U-17 and U-20 squads opting only for defender Roger Joe to make graduate to the senior side. The Vanuatu Football Federation released rising youngsters Jean Emmanuel (Victor) Maleb and Charlie Ligo to join the Otago Youth team for next month’s Milk Cup in Northern Ireland.

While Vanuatu has shown in recent internationals the ability to win big games, where it is weak is up front. Striker Richard Iwai is the only recognised scoring threat and was a star for Vanuatu at the 2000 OFC Nations Cup in Tahiti, but he was below his best in Auckland last year and will be looking for a better outing in Fiji where his speed and dribbling will be a factor on the hard grounds there.

Vanuatu’s low scoring output of late contributed to its loss to Tahiti in the 2002 OFC Nations Cup playoff for third and fourth where it dominated most of the play but was unable to score, while Tahiti won the match through taking its opportunity and finishing third behind winners New Zealand and second placed Australia.

NEW CALEDONIA: New Caledonia have two talented strikers in Ramon Djamali and Michel Hmae who were the top two goal scorers in the Tahiti Division d’honneur national league this year. They also have experience aplenty in the midfield and defence.

And unlike previous years, the current national side will arrive in Fiji well prepared having finished a gruelling 15 day, six match tour of Australia. The Serge De Novack coached side won six from seven dropping the solitary game in controversial circumstances when at half-time and trailing by 1-0, the goal post broke and as unable to be repaired in time forcing the referee to end the match prematurely with the win handed to the home side.

The New Caledonia team will no doubt be a much improved outfit than the one which was disappointing at last year’s OFC Nations Cup. They have their star players available and are much better prepared, physically and mentally.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Former New Zealand assistant, Steve Cain, has steadily nurtured a new crop of players over in Papua New Guinea and many of them will make their national team debuts in Fiji.

The squad has been chosen with next January’s Olympic Qualifiers in mind. Experienced veterans such as Joe Aisa and Francis Moiyap are missing, but there is enough experience in the form of Richard Daniel, Reginald Davani, Desmond Sow and Paul Komboi to make PNG a genuine contender.

The team is young but exciting in the midfield and forward positions. An under strength PNG held their own in a recent friendly international against a full strength Solomon Islands team going down to two late penalties late in the second half to go down 3-5. PNG held the Solomons to a nil all draw at last year’s OFC Nations Cup and were not at their best on a bad pitch but still played with credit in a 1-3 loss to Tahiti.

There is enough talent and experience in this team for their opponents not to underestimate them.

* Please note that the final confirmed match schedules and match official appointments will be released soon. A media guide for the tournament will also be placed as a pdf link on the OFC website when final details come through. Full information, updates and results will also be available as from 28 June when the South Pacific Games commence. An exclusive website is already linked on the homepage of the OFC website where coverage of the football tournament can be accessed. This website can also be accessed by visiting www.oceaniasport.com and clicking on football.

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