With the last available spot up for grabs at the OFC U-19 2018 Championship proper in Tahiti later this year, the stakes couldn’t be any higher for the four participating teams at the OFC U-19 Championship Qualifier which gets under way on Saturday 26 March in the Cook Islands.
American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga and hosts Cook Islands will be competing in the first stage of the tournament as they begin their quest to secure one of the two spots on offer for Oceania in next year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland.
Pacific neighbours and cousins American Samoa and Samoa will kick off proceedings in the opening match of the tournament at 13:30 (local time) before hosts Cook Islands and Tonga face each other from 16:30 (local time) at the CIFA Complex.
The local derby between American Samoa and Samoa is always fiercely contested and tomorrow’s meeting is likely to be no different as both sides will be aware of the need to get off to a good start.
American Samoa comes with a very fresh look and claims to be the underdogs against their Samoan cousins.
“We know Samoa is strong , they’ve got a very good team , they’ve got a few off island players, we just want to play our game and we’ll see from there , and hope our boys are gonna up for it.
“And stick to the game plan and hopefully it will work out,” says coach Tunoa Lui.
“We know we are the underdogs, our team is a fairly, very young team , but you never know, the soccer ball is round, we believe that what we’ve been doing in the past two months preparing this team is that we are progressing. The boys have got a good spirit coming into the tournament, they are looking forward to playing in this competition, hopefully things will turn out as we want.”
The Samoans, who have been in training since January and recently spent ten days in New Zealand enroute to this tournament lack no motivation with a good number of player transitioned from the U-17 squad and have had a taste of experience at the OFC U-17 championship in Tahiti last year.
Coach Valerio Raccuglia is pleased with his side’s preparations.
“We started in January in Samoa, trained every day and then ten days ago we went to New Zealand. With the people coming from outside, we had a couple of good games. It was a good preparation very happy where we are at the moment.
The Samoan team believes it has what it takes to secure their ticket to the Solomon Islands, But Racugglia is reluctant to place too much pressure on his players.
“Obviously we play to win and anything less than that is not good, but I just want to see the boys perform well, keep the discipline and the organisation and enjoy themselves as well. We are Very quiet, but I think the boys know what we can do and hopeful we can perform on the pitch.”
Cook Islands will go into the intriguing opening encounter against Tonga as slight favourites on the back of their previous success at this level.
Using their home ground advantage the hosts will be determined to repeat their heroics from the 2016 OFC U-20 Qualifier tournament in Tonga where they showed plenty of maturity to pip their rivals and book their place at the second stage of qualifiers in Vanuatu.
Cook Islands coach Alan Taylor says home support will be important for his side.
“Absolutely, I mean its an advantage playing at home because you are familiar with the surroundings but also that can be a little bit of a comfort factor, so they’ve just got to get out there and just put all that behind them, and it the crowd can get behind them, that makes a big difference. Huge difference”
However, their task will not be easy against a Tonga side that contains several players with senior international experience, and Taylor doesn’t take anything for granted.
“The expectations is that the boys will go out, and do the very best they can, not sure about the opposition, haven seen them play so we don’t know too much tactically what they are doing, but we’ll be playing a very positive sort of game, and expecting our boys to go out and try to win. You got to win the tournament to go to the next one so we are definitely trying to win and on Saturday, we’ll see how far we’ve come.”
On the eve of the kick off the mood its high in the Cook island camp.
“Oh it’s very good, they boys know each other for a long time, been together long time in their clubs and in their junior teams, its a small island , so they know each other very well, the get on really well with each other, so it’s not hard to get them, sort of motivated, it’s just a case on the day under pressure, just how they react,” Taylor said.
With every team eager too kick off their campaign with a win, the opening encounters are set to be closely contested affairs.
And with each team scheduled to play three matches, it’s crucial to begin strongly in order to lay down the foundations for the rest of the tournament.
Tongan coach Soane Malia is keenly aware of the importance of their clash against the Cook Islands.
“Our first game with Cook Islands, a team that qualified for the second stage (the last time) and this game is really going to be really tough. We will try everything, we will try our offence defence, everything, because we need a good result for our first game. And looking forward to some more good results for the team.”
The Tongan team is looking to create a slice of football history for their country by progressing to the next level.
“We have a vision and our goal is to try and win. We set our goal back in the beginning of March,” Malia said.
“We recalled and remembered all the tournaments, both your and senior level, where Tonga failed to qualify for the next stage. This is the team that could change that. This team had a good pathway, most of the players have been together since the Just Play programme arrived in Tonga.
“Our vision is to win this tournament.”
2018 OFC U-19 Championship Qualifiers
American Samoa [ASA] vs Samoa [SAM]
Saturday 26 May
Kick-off: 13h30 local
Referee: Robinson BANGA [VAN]
Assistant Referee1: Jeremy GARAE [VAN]
Assistant Referee 2: Wase BAFINU [PNG]
Fourth Official: Kader ZITOUNI [TAH]
Team List: 1. MJ FAOA-DANIELSON, 2. Joseph COLLINS, 3. New Year VILLAR, 4. Walter PATI, 5. Walter PATI, 6. Milo TIATIA, 7.Kuresa TAGA’I, 8. Michael SETTLE, 9. Gabriel TAUMUA, 10. Darryl ULUFALE, 11. Darryl ULUFALE, 12. Roy LEDOUX, 13. Kato LASALO ,14. Misi MUSU, Vaha TUA, 16. Mark TAGA’I, 17.Matthew TAGA’I, 18. Tuaki LATU
Coach: Tunoa LUI [SAM]
Team List: 1. Junior LOAU, 2. Sean ATHERTON, 3. Matthew-Jas CASTRO, 4. Ioane ALE, 5. Jay POPESE, 6. Jefferson FAAMATAU, 7. Samuelu MALO, 8. Daniele SCARONI, 9. Laauli BLAKELOCK, 10. Stanley MAMEA, 11. Henry SMITH, 12. Peter FELISE, 13.Kawasaki SAOFAIGA, 14. Dilo TUMUA, 15. Paul FELISE, 16. Jeffery LEIATAUA, 17.Samu GALU TAUASA, 21.Osa SAVELIO, 23. Darcy KNIGHT, 24. Harlen RUSSELL
Coach: Valerio RACUUGLIA [ITA]
Cook Islands vs Tonga
Saturday 26 May
Kick-off: 16h30 local
Referee: Cory MILLS [NZL]
Assistant Referee1: Edward COOK [NZL]
Assistant Referee 2: Marc SINYEUE [NCL]
Fourth Official: David Yareboinen [PNG]
Team List: 1. Semisi OTUKOLO, 2. Petueli TOKOTAHA, 3. Sione TUIFANGALOKA, 4. Ofa KITE, 5. Tevita VAKATAPU, 6. Vai LUTU, 7. Tuia FALEPAPALANGI, 8. Kalakaua FAIVAILO, 9. Tevita KAU, 10. Mohammad RAJANI, 11. Viliami TUKIA, 12. Tevita SILI, 13. Opesi TU’IFANGALOKA, 14. Sione VAENUKU, 15. Meimeite SIALE, 16. Tellos KAUFUSI, 17. Atunaisa NAMOA, 18. Anthony LIKILIKI, 19. Setafano VAOMO’UNGA, 20. Sionela LUI
Coach: Soane MAILANGI [TGA]
Team List: 1. Kayne MATAPO, 2. Manase UNUIA, 3. Sean IONA, 4. William NAPA, 5. Willynn KARIKA, 6. Lee HARMON, 7. James NAND, 8. Geosah GEORGE, 9. Conroy TIPUTOA, 10. Daryl AREAI, 11. Grafton POTORU, 12. Teokotai PAIO, 13. Finlay MUNRO, 14. Parau ELLIS, 15. Temata KARIKA, 16. Graham VIKING, 17. Tumatangi TUMATANGI, 18. Tereapii MATAMAKI, 20. Manaariki PIERRE
Coach: Alan TAYLOR [ENG]