In September 2015, the FIFA Executive Committee made a decision that had a profound impact on youth football in Oceania.
They decided that OFC would have two automatic spots for the male FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cups from 2017 onwards.
Held bi-annually, the global youth competitions have proven a fertile breeding ground for many future superstars of international football.
The male tournaments have gradually expanded to 24-team events and are highly competitive.
The U-20 version began in 1977 as the FIFA World Youth Championship and OFC didn’t have a representative until 1981 when former OFC member Australia hosted the global event. It became known as the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005.
The FIFA U-17 World Cup was first contested in China in 1985 when it was called the FIFA U-16 World Championship. The current name was adopted in 2007.
The upshot for OFC’s male youth tournaments means they now provide players from two countries the chance to attend a World Cup.
Since Australia’s departure from OFC at the end of 2005, New Zealand have traditionally dominated the youth competitions in Oceania.
Every two years the OFC U-16 Championship and OFC U-19 Championship tournaments are held to decide who will represent OFC at the youth World Cups.
The OFC events are usually held one year ahead of the FIFA tournament that the winner and runners-up will qualify for.
“That gives our teams 12 months to prepare to lift the level that they’re playing at,” OFC Competitions Director Chris Kemp said.
“We wanted to put some structure around the development pathway for our competitions.”
One key change OFC has made for 2020 is the male youth tournaments no longer have a four-team qualifying stage.
The qualifying event was previously contested by American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands and offered the winner a spot in the main draw with OFC’s seven other Member Associations.
Now all 11 OFC members will compete in one tournament and Kemp said the move was a natural progression.
“We see that as a way to help develop the smaller nations. If you keep them in a box forever, they’re never going to be able to break out of that box.”
The evolution of the OFC U-16 and U-19 events means more countries have the chance to host them.
This provides an opportunity to develop their own facilities and Member Associations can get a taste of what goes into hosting a large-scale football tournament.
“There’s myriad benefits to giving our Member Associations the chance to host these events and we are thankful that they’ve shown so much enthusiasm to be involved in the past few years,” Kemp said.
While New Zealand have enjoyed some good results in the past decade, there’s some interesting history mixed into the OFC youth tournaments.
The OFC U-19 Championship adopted its current name in 2018 having previously being known as the OFC U-20 Championship – the change was made to fall into line with sending teams to the FIFA U-20 World Cup the following year.
Israel – now members of UEFA – competed at the OFC event in 1985 and 1986 earning a silver medal each time. Chinese Taipei, AFC members, played three times during the 1980s.
Tahiti are the only Pacific Island nation to have won the OFC U-19 Championship, winning the inaugural tournament in 1974 and triumphing as hosts in 2008.
The OFC U-16 Championship has been played since 1983 and was originally called the OFC U-17 Championship; much like the U-19 event, the name change was implemented in 2018 to meet the FIFA youth World Cup cycle.
Only Australia and New Zealand have ever won the OFC U-16 Championship. Chinese Taipei also competed in the event three times in the 1980s.
When it comes to the FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cups, OFC is still waiting for its first champion, but New Zealand have continued to show improvement and have got out of their group during the past three editions of the U-20 tournament.
Aside from the Kiwis, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Tahiti, the Solomon Islands and Fiji have also competed in FIFA youth World Cups recently, but no Pacific Island team has managed to advance from pool play.
New Zealand hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1999 and the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2015.
There have also been significant strides in the women’s youth game in Oceania in recent years and that will be covered in the coming weeks so keep an eye on the OFC website for more.