Football superstar Christian Karembeu launched the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) O-League at a packed Press Conference in Auckland today.
The dreadlocked Karembeu delighted the gathering with his views on the game in the region and vowed to return in February to oversee the first stages of the competition, perhaps with some friends from the French-winning 1998 FIFA World Cup team.
“My aim is to help young people from the South Pacific know they can fulfill their dreams of playing football. But it is not just about football. It is about health, education, literacy – this is important.”
Karembeu – who won the FIFA World Cup, Euro 2000, FIFA Confederations Cup and two UEFA Champions Leagues – cheekily added the O-League was one trophy that had eluded him.
When asked by a journalist if he would consider coming out of retirement, Karembeu joked he had already signed for AS Mont Dore and would be back for the first game.
“No, I am retired now, but the O-League can give Oceania the chance to have players show what they can do and go to the FIFA Club World Cup. I support this idea.”
Auckland City defender and former Middlesbrough team-mate, Dean Gordon, said Karembeu’s decision to help the OFC was a major coup.
“When Christian signed for Middlesbrough we were delighted to have him in the FA Premiership. Everybody loved him he’s a great guy and a great footballer. When I heard he was coming to New Zealand I was shocked because he is so famous. What he is doing for the game in New Zealand and Oceania is fantastic.”
OFC General Secretary, Tai Nicholas, said the O-League was an important step in raising the popularity of football in the pacific islands and added it was also important in raising the profile of the NZFC.
“We have a problem because a tournament under the old format, played over ten days, meant we couldn’t say we had a true club champion. Now – with a home and away format – we can attract more people to the games. For example, in the Solomon Islands, it is possible to have 20,000 people at the game, maybe some locked outside and others trying to gain a view from surrounding areas. This is what the O-League can bring to our member associations.”
One feature of the Press Conference was the Battle of Auckland featuring Auckland City and Waitakere United. Both NZFC clubs have been drawn alongside AS Mont Dore of New Caledonia in Group A. Only one club can progress from the Group stage and Auckland City chairman, Ivan Vuksich, said the prospect of engaging their deadly rivals in the O-League was exciting.
“I think it is disappointing we can’t be in separate groups. But, yes, we’re looking forward to it. Rex (Dawkins) is a competitive person; I’m a competitive person; the matches should be great.”
Waitakere United coach Rex Dawkins was adamant his side would seize their chance to shine on the international stage.
“”We only knew of the opportunity to play some weeks ago so while we might be behind in the planning stakes we are honored to be given such a chance and will take it with both hands. Waitakere United is about our region of West Auckland and the 12 member clubs that support us in the NZFC. We now have the opportunity to represent those clubs, supporters, sponsors and Waitakere City Council on the world stage. We will do our best to do so with pride and a determination to win through the group and compete in the home and away final.”
New Zealand defender Danny Hay said the “This will be a real test for us to go to New Caledonia and pick up a result against Mont Dore, let alone do battle with Auckland City on more familiar turf. Conditions will be difficult, the culture different and the style of football new to most of our players. This is not about enjoying a few days break in the sun, this is about one of the toughest football matches and series of matches that most players in New Zealand could ever hope to experience. It is a great challenge and one we must ensure we are ready for next year.”
Christian Karembeu recently returned from Vanuatu where he helped promote football in the primary schools and hoped to do more work for OFC when he returned in February, 2007.