When the 21st edition of the OFC U-20 Championship gets underway in Santo on Saturday it will be with great drive and desire from the four teams based on Vanuatu’s largest island.
Tahiti, New Zealand, Solomon Islands and Cook Islands make up Group B and all four are aiming for a coveted spot in the semi-finals, and tickets to Korea 2017.
Hot favourites in Group B are five-time champions New Zealand, who make their return to U-20 competition in Oceania for the first time since 2013 with former Watford and Wolverhampton Wolves defender Darren Bazeley at the helm.
Bazeley led the squad of 2015 to an historic exit from the FIFA U-20 World Cup group stage and is hoping his side will have the opportunity to better that feat come 2017.
But first there is the group stage of the OFC U-20 Championship to get through and Bazeley is rightly focused on the three matches that lie ahead, starting with preliminary winners Cook Islands tomorrow.
“It’s good we’re looking forward to the international games and the competition,” Bazeley shares.
“We’ve got a good group who have worked really hard to be selected to have this opportunity and they’re pretty determined to go and give it their all.
“We know it will be difficult. We’ve got a target on us because people will want to beat us but we will be organised and we’re ready for the challenge.”
Cook Islands too know what a difficult task lays ahead for them given the large step up from the preliminary competition to this tournament in Vanuatu.
Matt Calcott has stepped in at late notice to guide the side, and the former Team Wellington coach is both realistic and optimistic about their chances.
“You never know if you’ve prepared well enough until you have a match,” Calcott said.
“We decided rather than have a warm-up match we would use the time to have three or four quality sessions as a group and that’s been good, we’re feeling positive.
“It will be tough but part of the boys’ thinking is to do our very best, put everything into it, and see where we get to.”
It’s almost a new beginning for two-time U-20 champions Tahiti after a long break from this level of competition. However after coming heartbreakingly close to securing a place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile last year the side is determined not to experience that disappointment for a second year in a row.
Ludovic Graugnard, who coached both the 2015 U-17 squad and the national team at the OFC Nations Cup earlier this year, has been working with his side for some time.
While they haven’t enjoyed any international friendlies in their build-up, he believes taking on some of the local first division club sides has helped harden his charges to the physical nature of regional football.
“We have done all we can to be ready,” Graugnard said.
“We have some U-17 players returning from last year and there is still a lot of hurt among them from when we lost the final to go to Chile in a penalty shootout.
“We know we have to pick ourselves up even though it’s difficult, and give our all to erase that from our memories with three strong performances here in the group stage first and foremost.”
The situation is similar for Solomon Islands who have just two members of their squad returning from the 2015 U-17 side and a new coach to boot.
Spaniard Pedro Mateo has taking the reins, spending two months cutting the squad from 50 down to just 20 who have travelled to Santo.
For a large majority of the squad the voyage marked their first time leaving Solomon Islands’ soil and Mateo believes that has helped form a strong bond between the players.
“The work that they put in was excellent. There is a lot of passion and they want to improve every day,” Mateo said.
He also believes the largely unknown squad makes them a threat.
“We are repeating with just two players and we think perhaps Tahiti don’t know what to expect from us.
“But I try to tell the players, they have football in their blood. They know how to treat the ball and we cannot be afraid of any team because even coming here, they have broken a lot of barriers.”
New Zealand vs. Cook Islands
Luganville Soccer City Stadium
Saturday 3 September
Referee: Salesh CHAND (FIJ)
Assistant Referee 1: Avinesh NARAYAN (FIJ)
Assistant Referee 2: Phul SINGH (FIJ)
Fourth Official: Robinson BANGA (VAN)
Vital Statistics: New Zealand is one of the most accomplished side’s in the history of this competition which is still an active OFC nation, with five titles and seven runner-up finishes over 21 editions.
The Players: Logan Rogerson gave us a taste of his talent in the 2015 OFC U-17 Championship and will be one of the stronger members of this side. Moses Dyer and Clayton Lewis are equally experienced having taken to the field during the U-20 side’s campaign at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Coach Quote: “We’re just concentrating on ourselves at the moment, making sure everyone knows their jobs and responsibilities and what part they play in the team and in the shape we play.”
New Zealand: 1. Michael WOUD (GK), 2. Jack-Henry SINCLAIR, 3. Sean LIDDICOAT, 4. Nando PIJNAKER, 5. Hunter ASHWORTH, 6. Luke JOHNSON, 7. Logan ROGERSON, 8. Moses DYER, 9. Myer BEVAN, 10. Clayton LEWIS, 11. Sarpreet SINGH, 12. Cameron BROWN (GK), 13. Charlie THOMAS, 14. Jake PORTER, 15. Lucas IMRIE, 16. Joe BELL, 17. George DEBENHAM, 18. Reese COX, 19. Joshua DIJKSTRA (GK)
Coach: Darren BAZELEY (NZL)
Vital Statistics: The Cook Islands have never competed at an OFC U-20 Championship before.
The Players: Captain Keegan Inia lends experience and a strong knowledge of the surroundings having played a key role in the U-17 squad which competed here in Santo in 2013. Dwayne and Conroy Tiputoa are both strong, powerful players that can threaten on attack.
Coach Quote: “We’re ready to open the tournament against New Zealand, we’re looking forward to it. We’ve had some good sessions, we know it will be tough but we’re feeling positive.”
Cook Islands: 1. Keegan INIA (GK), 2. Jarves APERAU, 3. George ELLIS, 4. Sunai JOSEPH, 5. Michael WOOD, 6. Kimiora SAMUELA, 7. Samuel MAOATE-COX, 8. Cahjun WILLIS, 11. Thane BEAL, 12. Melbourne MATAKINO, 13. Orin RUAINE-PRATTLEY, 14. Conroy TIPUTOA, 15. Owenne MATAPO, 17. Kristian YOUNG, 18. Dwayne TIPUTOA, 20. Manaariki PIERRE (GK)
Coach: Matt CALCOTT (NZL)
Tahiti vs. Solomon Islands
Luganville Soccer City Stadium
Saturday 3 September
Referee: Joel HOPKEN (VAN)
Assistant Referee 1: Jeremy GARAE (VAN)
Assistant Referee 2: Hilmon SESE (VAN)
Fourth Official: Mederic LACOUR (NCL)
Vital Statistics: Tahiti haven’t competed at the OFC U-20 Championship since taking the title in 2008 – their second after winning the inaugural event in 1974.
The Players: Michel Maihi is a bright young talent who brings pace and skill to the frontline for Tahiti.
Coach Quote: “What we know about Solomon Isladns football in general is players are very technical, quick and on attack are always very strong. We’ve shared that knowledge with the squad and we’re ready to take them on.”
Tahiti: 1. Moana PITO (GK), 2. Brandon AUTAI, 3. Tuma TIATOA, 4. Vaianui DROLLET, 5. Hauragi HURI, 6. Ryan PETITGAS, 7. Roonui TEHAU, 8. Ro’onui TINIRAUARII, 9. Heirauarii SALEM, 10. Michel MAIHI, 11. Sandro TAU, 12. Rainui NORDMAN, 13. Joachim TEANUANUA, 14. Toriki GUYOT, 15. Marcus SIEJIDR, 16. Tetahio TERIINOHOPUAITERAI (GK), 17. Raivaru HANERE, 18. Kaena ONUU, 19. Daniel SEINO, 20. Raumatahi NOHO
Coach: Ludovic GRAUGNARD (TAH)
Vital Statistics: Solomon Islands have just two players who have represented Solomon Islands previously – Larry Zama and Richard Raramo who were in the 2015 U-17 squad.
The Players: With a lot of unknowns surrounding this squad it will look to the experience of Zama and Raramo for leadership. Albert Witney is another player who lends regional nous to the squad having represented Solomon Islands club champions Solomon Warriors at the OFC Champions League.
Coach Quote: “We know Tahiti have a lot of the same players who played in the U-17 and they will be a very strong team. They are one of the top two teams in this competition along with New Zealand.”
Solomon Islands: 1. Desmond TUTU (GK), 2. Sedrick DOLIASI, 3. Joe GISE, 4. Richard RARAMO, 5. Kisina SILAS, 6. Steven TOLEYI, 7. David FILIA, 8. Molis GAGAME, 9. Jabeth SOLOMON, 10. Albert WITNEY, 11. Adrian RICKSON, 12. Harold NAUANIA (GK), 13. Ian KALU, 14. Darold KAKASI, 15. Sandrack TUI, 16. Augustine WAITA, 17. Israel TATAI, 18. Alvin RAY, 19. Larry ZAMA, 20. John DAUTA
Coach: Pedro MATEO (ESP)