An extra FIFA U-20 World Cup spot on offer at the 2016 OFC U-20 Championship is adding extra incentive as Group A gets underway in Port Vila, Vanuatu on Saturday.
For the first time in the competition’s 21 editions, the top two teams in this eight nation event will qualify directly for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and on paper there appears to be little separating Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and host Vanuatu ahead of the first round of matches.
New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea kick off the group at noon (local time) while Vanuatu’s clash against defending champions Fiji at 3pm headlines the first day’s play.
With the winner of the two cross-over semi finals each earning a ticket to Korea, the prospect of topping the group and earning, in theory, an easier path to qualification means starting well is vital.
“For me this is the toughest pool,” said Papua New Guinea coach Peter Gunemba, “it’s not easy to tell who will win this group.”
“The extra World Cup spot is a massive motivation to all the teams. In the past the region had one team go to the World Cup and many teams struggled [at the qualifiers],” Gunemba said.
But with Papua New Guinea football currently on a high, Gunemba sees no reason why his side shouldn’t aim to add another chapter to that story.
“The U-23s got a bronze medal at the South Pacific Games and the senior men made the final of the OFC Nations Cup. We have relayed the message to all of our teams now that if the senior men can do it, you can too.”
Likewise, New Caledonia coach Kamali Fitealeata has eyes on earning what would be New Caledonia’s first ticket to a FIFA event but is full of healthy respect for the challenge in front of them.
“Papua New Guinea has a good team and have improved greatly with Fleming Seritslav in charge of the senior team. We are expecting them to be physically strong and to bring a good level of football,” said Fitealeata.
“It’s up to our players now and I know they are ready for battle.”
Fiji are the only Group A team to have previously qualified for a FIFA U-20 World Cup, joining hosts New Zealand at last year’s edition in which they defeated Honduras in group play.
And while they take confidence from that experience, and some positive results in warm up matches in Australia, coach Yogendra Dutt is weary of facing the hosts first up.
“Having been to a World Cup, it will be a catalyst for the boys to give them strength against the host nation, but we know the task is really big”
“Vanuatu will have the advantage of crowd support and they are used to the pitch so they start with the upper hand,” Dutt said.
Vanuatu spent three weeks in New Zealand preparing for this tournament but are looking forward to playing in front of the Port Vila faithful.
“Our preparation in New Zealand was pretty good. We took the boys out of their comfort zone and it was very important to keep them together and work with them every day.
“We are well prepared and I can say the team is very happy to be playing in Vanuatu in front of a home crowd and we’ll be doing our best to win our first game against Fiji.”
Eslewhere, Group B action at Luganville Soccer City Stadium on the island of Santo sees New Zealand open against debutants Cook Islands while Tahiti clash with the Solomon Islands in the later kickoff.
Papua New Guinea vs. New Caledonia
Port Vila Stadium
Port Vila, Vanuatu
Saturday 3 September
Kick-off: 12h00 VUT
Referee: Kader ZITOUNI (TAH)
Assistant Referee 1: Folio MOEAKI (TGA)
Assistant Referee 2: John PARENAGA (COK)
Fourth Official: George TIME (SOL)
Papua New Guinea
Vital Statistics: Papua New Guinea have won just four matches at the OFC U-20 Championship and none against any of their Group A opponents in 15 collective attempts.
The Players: Felix Komolong is already a full international and was a key figure in Papua New Guinea’s run to the final of the OFC Nations Cup in July, playing every minute of their campaign in the heart of defence.
Coach Quote: “If we are to finish it to the top two in our pool that wil be a big achievement for us and we fill give our very best.”
Papua New Guinea: 1. Jonathan POLE (GK), 2. Kenneth PILAILO, 3. Darius JAMES, 4. Edward JOSHUA, 5. Gabby YANUM, 6. Peter DABINYABA, 7. Moses TUPA, 8. Gregory TOGUBAI, 9. Stahl GUBAG, 10. Jonah IHA, 11. Giwi SIMON, 12. George KOREI, 13. Alu AWI, 14. Jaggen NALU, 15. Oswald BADE, 16. Punchimil KEPINIU, 17. Winston SOMASI, 18. Felix KOMOLONG, 19. Edward LAKAE (GK)
Coach: Peter GUNEMBA (PNG)
Vital Statistics: New Caledonia have won both of their previous matches against Papua New Guinea at this level, one each in the last two editions of the tournament.
The Players: Comfortable in possesion, seventeen year-old Jean-Marc Kaudre adds an attacking impetus from fullback and will be vital in his team’s transition from defence into attack.
Coach Quote: We have a good generation of players although we have lost a few who play in France. We will play hard to be the first New Caledonia team to qualify.
New Caledonia: 1. Mickaël ULILE (GK), 2. Gaëtan GOPE-IWATE, 3. Jean-Marc KAUDRE, 4. Brice KAI, 5. Pothin POMA, 6. Wapö ELE-HMAEA, 7. Bryan AUSU, 8. Shene WELEPANE, 9. Albert WATRONE, 10. Thomas GOPE-FENEPEJ, 11. Patrick GOHE, 12. Wéda WAITREU, 13. Warren HOUALA, 14. Romarick LUEPAK, 15. Henri BOUCHERON, 16. Lucas BITAUD, 17. Johanes BERNOLE, 18.Renzo WEJIEME, 19. Cyril NYPIE, 20. Nathanaël HLEMU (GK)
Coach: Kamali FITEALEATA (NCL)
Vanuatu vs. Fiji
Port Vila Stadium
Port Vila, Vanuatu
Saturday 3 September
Kick-off: 15h00 VUT
Referee: Robinson Nick WALDRON (NZL)
Assistant Referee 1: Glen LOCKRIE (NZL)
Assistant Referee 2: Stephen SENIGA (SOL)
Fourth Official: Campbell-Kirk WAUGH (NZL)
Vital Statistics: With 19 wins and five draws from their 40 matches at the OFC U-20 Championship, Vanuati are the third most succesful team among active members behind New Zealand and Fiji.
The Players: Another player capped at full international level, Vanuatu’s midfield maestro Bong Kalo will be one to watch on home soil as he looks to add a creative spark in the centre of the park.
Coach Quote: “Our aim is to do well and even win the pool here. We give every team respect. I believe if we play well we are good enough to reach the semi finals and if that happens we will do our best to go even further.”
Vanuatu: 1. Andreas DUCH (GK), 2. Joseph IARUEL, 3. Jason THOMAS, 4. Selwyn VATU, 5. Jesse KALOPONG, 6. Claude ARU, 7. Bong KALO, 8. Godine TENENE, 9. Sylvain WORWORBU, 10. Ronaldo WILKINS, 11. Jonathan SPOKEYJACK, 12. Abednigo SAU, 13. Tasso JEFFERY, 14. Timothy BOULET, 15. Gregory PATRICK, 16. Harison MASSING, 17. Jayson TIMATUA, 18. Max UGUNA, 19. Frederick MASSING, 20. Ricky DICK (GK)
Coach: Etienne MERMER (VAN)
Vital Statistics: Fiji have qualified for one FIFA U-20 World Cup but have finsihed runners-up six times, a figure only topped by New Zealand’s seven silver medals.
The Players: Midfielder Mataiasi Toma, has already experienced a FIFA U-20 World Cup, travelling to New Zealand with Fiji’s class of 2015 and now hopes to lead his side to a repeat of the achievement.
Coach Quote: “We will go into this tournamant looking just at the first game. After that we will look at the second and then the third. We will be very cautious about the steps we should take aginast the opponents in our pool.
Fiji: 1. Jovilisi BORISI (GK), 2. Savenaca BALEDROKADROKA, 3. Suliano TAWANAKORO, 4. Bruce HUGHES, 5. Vinal PRASAD, 6. Akeimi RALULU, 7. Mataiasi TOMA, 8. Afraz ALI, 9. Leroy JENNINGS, 10. Jeshal KUMAR, 11. Don RAJ, 12. Patrick JOSEPH, 13. Kartik KUMAR, 14. Simeli BATIRATU, 15. Ilaisa VULIMAINAVUSO, 16. Marika RAWASOI, 17. France CATAROGO, 18. Jonetani NEWA, 19. Zainal ALI, 20. Zoela BIUNAVUA (GK)
Coach : Yogendra DUTT (FIJ)