(Photo Credit OFC Media-New Zealand players training ahead of tournament kickoff)
The Solomon Islands have represented Oceania at the last four FIFA Futsal World Cups but that impressive run is set to be threatened at this week’s OFC Futsal Nations Cup 2023 tournament in Auckland, New Zealand.
And it’s the hosts who go in as slight favourites to qualify for next year’s showpiece tournament in Uzbekistan.
The tournament kicks off at Bruce Pullman Arena in Takanini, Auckland on Sunday.
The New Zealanders who won the title in Fiji last year (beating the Solomon Islands 6-2 in the final) have had an impressive buildup, coming off two good wins 5-0 and 6-2 over China in Beijing last month.
Their coach, Marvin Eakins believes his side is well equipped to go all the way.
“The exciting part is we’ve progressed quite a bit since then.(Last year’s tournament) So I think the guys are all just keen to get out on that court and see how we go.” Eakins said.
Eakins himself has been part of the New Zealand set up since 2008, first as a player, then as a player coach and now coach, and the Solomon Islands have been a constant thorn in his side.
“ The cool thing about that, I guess, is that not many of those players have had that experience. I think I’m the only one carrying that from the previous campaigns. And all these guys have got to know about winning. So I think they’re going to bring that energy, none of the baggage and hopefully play with the freedom.” Eakins added.
New Zealand is in Group A alongside Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga.
And while the Solomon Islands and New Zealand have been talked up as favourites to meet in next Saturday’s title decider, Eakin is aware the standard of other Pacific Islands nations is improving.
“Yeah, I think the cool thing about this tournament is that nearly all the teams can actually win it, and on their day win a game against one of the traditionally stronger teams. So yeah, you can’t rest up you have to take each game as a final. And that’s certainly what we’re going to do.” Eakins added.
The 14 strong New Zealand squad is a mix of youth and experience with captain Dylan Manickum a veteran of 58 caps and having scored 34 goals having been a mainstay of the side since his debut in 2010.
But more than half the squad have fewer than eight caps each and Eakins says the younger players are hungry for success.
“I think we’re going to hopefully have a few highlight reels of some of these younger players that have kind of played Futsal for over 10 years now. And they’ve earned their right to make the national team, they’ve pushed some of the old boys like me, out of the team, and just what they’re doing on that court, how they’re tactically understanding the game, their technical ability, and the energy they bring it is pretty exciting.”
New Zealand kicks off its campaign against Vanuatu on Sunday.