Squeezing in the final trainings and tweaking areas of weakness, four teams have high hopes of earning three points in Group B’s first day of action at the 2017 OFC U-17 Championship at Stade Pater in Papeete, Tahiti on 12 February.
OFC U-17 Championship Qualifier winners Samoa will take on five-time consecutive title winners New Zealand at 4pm (local time) before Fiji play Solomon Islands at 7pm (local time).
Since their triumph during the qualifier, Samoa have been working hard to prepare themselves for the level that awaits them here in Tahiti.
Having good experience of Tahiti after several seasons in Ligue 1 during his own playing career, Samoa coach Desmond Faaiuaso knows the local climate and environment well which he hopes will be an advantage.
And facing the defending champions in their opening encounter, he hopes that knowledge combined with the depth of talent in his squad will be an advantage.
“We’ve brought in four players since the qualifier, two locals and two from overseas. We started training two weeks after the qualifier finished, had a rest over Christmas and returned in January,” he said.
“The reason why we’re here is to compete. My boys and I are ready and we can’t wait to get started.”
For New Zealand coach Danny Hay, the journey to the OFC U-17 Championship has been a long one, but he is looking forward to seeing their hard work and preparation reflected in their match against Samoa.
“For us, and for most of the teams here, it’s been a long process trying to identify the players who are capable of playing at this level,” he said.
“We’re happy to be here, the climate is sensational and we’re looking forward to the tournament getting underway and seeing how everybody gets on.”
With the crowd warmed up after Samoa and New Zealand’s match, it falls to Fiji and Solomon Islands to keep them entertained in the 7pm encounter.
Although Fiji coach Shalen Lal is nervous about his first experience at the helm of an international team, he has full confidence that his side is well-prepared and will step up to challenge against Solomon Islands.
“For me, this is the first time I’m leading a team. With the U-20 in Fiji in 2014 I was assisting them and I guess that has taught me that it’s all down to the players,” he said.
“We’ve been together working in a great way but on a match day it’s the players who are having to complete the task.”
Building experience on the field, under coach Marlon Houkarawa the U-17 took on 2017 OFC Champions League-bound clubs Marist FC and Western United, and indications are they’ll now be well-prepared for the speed and skill of international youth football and capable of making a charge for the title.
“We played Marist twice, we beat them the first time and drew the second. Western United, which mostly consists of senior national team players, beat us 4-2,” he said.
“Since the day we started, the U-17s have behaved well, have the right attitude towards football and they’ve starting to play together well.
“They’re excited, they really want that spot in the World Cup. We are planning to go a step further than the U-20 team, our aim is to win.”
Samoa and New Zealand will meet at 4pm (local time) before Fiji take on Solomon Islands at 7pm (local time) in the second day of the 2017 OFC U-17 Championship at Stade Pater in Papeete, Tahiti on 12 February.
Samoa vs. New Zealand
Sunday 12 February
Referee: Joel HOPKEN (VAN)
Assistant Referee 1: Sione TEU (TGA)
Assistant Referee 2: Marc SINYEUE (NCL)
Fourth Official: Mederic LACOUR (NCL)
Vital Statistics: 2017 is the first year that Samoa has won the preliminary stage to qualify for the OFC U-17 Championship. They placed third in their last preliminary campaign in 2013 behind Cook Islands and American Samoa after one draw, one loss, and one win.
The Players: Eti Fatu represented Samoa as the only goalkeeper in the inaugural OFC Education Centre last year. The youngster received one-on-one training from former New Zealand goalkeeper James Bannatyne, so the Samoans should be confident with Fatu between the posts.
Coach Quote: “The reason why we’re here is to compete. My boys and I are ready and we can’t wait to get started.”
Samoa: 1. Eti Fatu (GK), 2. Kitiona Nauer, 3. Harlen Russell, 4. Sefa Mamea-Hind, 5. Solomon Granger, 6. Stanley Mamea, 7. Willie Sauiluma, 8. Jackson Nautu, 9. Darcy Knight, 10. Falaniko Nanumea, 11. Dauntae Mariner, 12. Lotial Mano, 13. Dilo Tumua, 14. Jefferson Faamatau, 15. Jay Popese, 16. Osa Savelio (GK), 17. Julius Duffy, 18. Jenuem Kepu, 19. Elijah Theodor, 22. Talita Hafoka (GK).
Coach: Desmond Faaiuaso (SAM)
Vital Statistics: New Zealand are five-time consecutive champions and the only current OFC Member Association to have won the OFC U-17 Championship. They are hot favourites for the 2017 edition.
The Players: Striker Max Mata will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Ben Mata, who joined the New Zealand U-17 team in the 2015 edition of the competition and scored one of the five penalties that saw the Kiwis defeat Tahiti in the final. Attending Wellington Phoenix Football Academy at Scots College in Wellington as one of the first recipients of the Winston Reid Scholarship, Mata’s football career is well on track.
Coach Quote: “We’re happy to be here, the climate is sensational and just looking forward to the tournament getting underway and seeing how everybody gets on.”
New Zealand: 1. Dylan BENNETT (GK), 2. Jordan SPAIN, 3. Josh ROGERSON, 4. Liberato CACACE, 5. Jake WILLIAMS, 6. Leon VAN DEN HOVEN, 7. Elijah JUST, 8. Oliver DUNCAN, 9. Max MATA, 10. Willem EBBINGE, 11. Matthew CONROY, 12. Zac JONES (GK), 13. Matthew JONES, 14. Kingsley SINCLAIR, 15. Ben DEELEY, 16. Oliver WHYTE, 17. Matthew PALMER, Charles SPRAGG.
Coach: Danny HAY (NZL)
Fiji vs. Solomon Islands
Sunday 12 February
Referee: Norbert HAUATA (TAH)
Assistant Referee 1: John PAREANGA (COK)
Assistant Referee 2: Denson SALE (VAN)
Fourth Official: Arnold TARI (VAN)
Vital Statistics: Fiji have appeared in more OFC U-17 Championships than any other OFC Member Association, participating every year since its inauguration in 1983 with the exception of the 2009 edition.
The Players: Mohammed Naizal’s experience and leadership earned him the captain’s armband in Fiji’s build up matches in Auckland, New Zealand before traveling to Tahiti for the competition. Naizal represented Fiji in the OFC Education Centre last year and has since proven a dominant player in the centre of the park for Fiji.
Coach Quote: “It’s all down to the players. We’ve been together working in a great way but on a match day it’s all down to the players.”
Fiji: 1. Mohammed Alam (GK), 2. Kishan Sami, 3. Paula Tuinaserau, 4. Simione Nabenu, 5. Jovilisi Muloca, 6. Mohammed Naizal, 7. Semi Matalau, 8. Shaneel Narayan, 9. Shaheel Gounder, 10. Navau Tikoruku, 11. Fardean Hussein, 12. Kemueli Uluikavoro, 13. Waisake Soga, 14. Shivam Naidu, 15. Iliesa Rakuka, 16. Ratu Dau, 17. Jone Sukulu, 18. Romit Narayan, 19. Mohammed Jamil, 20. Asaeli Batikasa (GK).
Coach: Shalen Lal (FIJ)
Vital Statistics: Solomon Islands have reached the semi-final stage of the competition in six of their nine appearances. In their first campaign in 1993, the side made it all the way to the final, where they lost 3-0 to Australia.
The Players: Striker Junior Allen brings the average age of the team down, having only just celebrated his 15th birthday. The competition will be the young Solomon Islander’s first taste of international football.
Coach Quote: “They’re excited, they really want that spot in the World Cup. We are planning to go a step further than the U-20 team, our aim is to win.”
Solomon Islands: 1. Joel NANAGO (GK), 2. John AETA, 3. Aengari GAGAME, 4. Junior ASHLEY, 5. Raymond DAUABU, 6. Bobby RAMO, 7. Junior KAONI, 8. Simon JEDZINI, 9. Don KEANA, 10. Elis MANA, 11. Ali MEKAWIR, 12. John BROWN (GK), 13. Stanley RYNIKER, 14. Danny OFENI, 15. Alfred ELVIS, 16. John MANA, 17. Michael LALO, 18. Steward TOATA, 19. Richmond HATARAU, 20. Junior ALLEN.
Coach: Marlon HOUKARAWA (SOL)
To view the match schedule for the OFC U-17 Championship 2017 visit www.oceaniafootball.com