The kick-off between Samoa and Papua New Guinea at Stade Yoshida on Sunday afternoon in the opening match of the OFC Women’s Nations Cup will mark an historic occasion for women’s football in the Pacific.
For the first time, the region’s premier women’s football tournament features all 11 Member Associations. Three have already exited in the qualifying stage which was held in Fiji in August, with seven more entering the action here in New Caledonia.
Group A will get underway in Koné with Samoa taking on Papua New Guinea in the opening match before a massive encounter between the hosts New Caledonia and fellow Francophones Tahiti.
For all the teams taking part, this competition has been long awaited so the anticipation and excitement is palpable within the squads.
For Papua New Guinea, it’s a great opportunity to return to action and show the team is as strong as ever, and women’s football continues to have a place in the local football landscape.
“We are really looking forward to our first game and we are also fortunate that we have the experience of players who have been playing together in the FIFA U-20 World Cup and also some of the young girls like Meagen (Gunemba) and Marie (Kaipu) who played in the Pacific Games,” Papua New Guinea coach Peter Gunemba said.
While Papua New Guinea have history behind them – four times gold-medallists at the Pacific Games and three-times runners-up in the OFC Women’s Nations Cup – Gunemba said they can take nothing for granted given women’s football development is a priority across the region.
“Maintaining the high standard of previous competitions is our goal, but there’s been a lot of development in the countries of the Oceania region so it will be tough.
“I’m confident but I don’t underestimate Samoa. They have good coaches, some development players, and they will be a tough side to counter. I don’t know the tactics, or the Samoan team too well but I believe that the team I have is pretty good.
“We have some good combinations so we should be ok and starting from tomorrow we’ll be able to get a good indication of where we are at. We’ll play our game and look forward to the result.
Papua New Guinea captain Sandra Birum is excited to finally get another opportunity to represent her country after having had to watch from the side lines as youth teams have come to the fore in recent years.
“I’m happy to be back with the team. It’s good to mix with the girls from the U-20 World Cup, I love to spend time with them because I learn from them, they learn from me also, it’s great to exchange.”
Meanwhile Samoa have also been pressing ahead with their development in a bid to make an impact on the regional stage. In recent years that includes a top four finish at the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea.
To assist with their campaign, they have brought in English coach Nicola Demaine who has assembled a competitive side bursting with promise.
“The preparations we’ve had have been good. We had a trip to Fiji after a short camp in Samoa and we were able to bring the girls together again before we came here so it’s been good.
“The main focus of our preparations has been uniting the group, we’ve got players who are based in a few different countries, so that’s been our focus and that will be our strength.
“There will be some players who are stronger than others, and different leaders on the field, but it’s doing everything in the right way and hopefully at the same time that we’ve been working towards to hopefully get that edge over the other teams.”
Demaine is also fortunate to have some insight into the Papua New Guinea players having worked with a number of them, and assistant coach Margaret Aka, during the Youth Olympic Games in 2015.
“I have good knowledge of the Papua New Guinea players. I’m expecting them to be fit and fast, and they’ve been playing together a while so there will be some cohesiveness there.
“But we’re not focusing too much on the opposition at this stage, we’re interested in playing our own game and hopefully that’s enough to get us across the line.”
Following the competition’s opening match will be the match everyone in New Caledonia have been waiting for – the return of their national team to this prestigious competition after a 35-year absence – against Tahiti.
It’s been a rocky road for women’s football in both countries with Tahiti also making just their second appearance in this competition. New Caledonia however have a slight edge over their opponents having performed well in the past two editions of the Pacific Games in 2011 and 2015, while Tahiti has been in the wilderness since 2011.
Despite that, Tahiti coach Stephanie Spielmann is positive about the team’s preparations for this competition, and their desire to make this a memorable return.
“We’ve been training for eight months with a group of 40 players before we cut that in half. We’ve been working hard and I think we’re ready,” Spielmann said.
“We have some young players who were in the U-16 so it’s been a couple of years we’ve been working with them, and combined with the best of the senior players we’ve been able to form the Vahine Ura.”
Looking more closely at what awaits them tomorrow at Stade Yoshida, Spielmann said the team is more than ready.
“We are ready, the players are ready, the staff, everyone is ready to get underway especially against New Caledonia. They’re playing at home and they have a good side so it should be an exciting match.”
For New Caledonia’s captain Celine Xolawawa this competition and tomorrow’s opening match present an exciting prospect for the squad as well as the women’s game.
“We’re incredibly happy to be playing at home, but also very proud to welcome the other delegations.
“Not everyone gets to play at home and we’re very pleased to show the best of our country, because it’s a beautiful country, and just so excited to welcome the other teams.”
While there are plenty of positives that come with playing at home, it also means greater pressure which is something Xolawawa said the team is taking in their stride.
“Right now, the spirit in camp is really high, we’ve been working hard to create cohesion – games, singing – the atmosphere of the group is important, the rhythm, unity.”
She said this will be crucial for all their matches in this competition, and with Tahiti first up they need to be solid.
“We played Tahiti in 2011 during the Pacific Games, it was incredibly hard. They’re an aggressive team that doesn’t give up. And ok, the team will be different now than it was back then but we can’t let that cloud our minds.
“We can’t say ‘they haven’t played in eight years’ and have that influence us in terms of what they might be like as an opponent. We can’t give up, we have to give everything because we’re also at home.”
Coach Kamali Fitealeata agrees that previous results remain in the past and the focus has to be on what they will face tomorrow on the field.
“They’re our cousins in the Pacific, they have a new coach and a new philosophy. The results of the past therefore don’t count for so much when we take this into consideration. We’re ready for them and we’ll see tomorrow how things go.”
Samoa vs Papua New Guinea
Sunday 18 November
Koné, New Calédonia
Referee: Nadia BROWNING (NZL)
Assistant Referee 1: Lata KAUMATULE (TGA)
Assistant Referee 2: Lonisa DILLIONI (FIJ)
Fourth Official: Tapaita LELENGA (TGA)
Head-to-Head: Papua New Guinea have won all four previous encounters against Samoa
Samoa: 1. Ronisa LIPI (GK), 2. Moreva MAMEA, 3. Lynetta LAUMEA-EDWARD, 4. Sina SATARAKA, 5. Mariah BULLOCK, 6. Melesete AIA, 7. Semeatu LEMANA, 8. Carline SCANLAN, 9. Shontelle STEVENS, 10. Madeleen AH KI, 11. Mariecamilla AH KI, 12. Lopamaua AH SAM, 14. Matalena DANIELLS, 15. Mole SAOFAIGA, 16. Paepae TUITAMA, 17. Tiare TUIMAVAVE, 18. Hana MALO, 20. Meripa SEUMANUTAFA (GK), 23. Jecky TOMA (GK)
Coach: Nicola DEMAINE (ENG)
Papua New Guinea: 1. Betty SAM (GK), Rita MAYANG, 3. Merolyn SALI, 4. Judith GUNEMBA, 5. Olivia UPAUPA, 6. Yvonne GABONG, 7. Stephanie GANI, 8. Sandra BIRUM, 9. Margaret JOSEPH, 10. Rayleen BAUELUA, 11. Selina UNAMBA, 12. Meagan GUNEMBA, 13. Ramona PADIO, 14. Cynthia PULOU, 15. Georgina BAKANI, 16. Marie KAIPU, 17. Eunice NABALU, 18. Theresah BOIE, 19. Elizabeth ELIZAH, 20. Faith KASIRAY (GK), 21. Fidorah NAMUESH
Coach: Peter GUNEMBA (PNG)
Tahiti vs. New Caledonia
Sunday 18 November
Koné, New Calédonia
Referee: Morgan ARCHER (NZL)
Assistant Referee 1: Heloise SIMONS (NZL)
Assistant Referee 2: Natalia LUMUKANA (SOL)
Fourth Official: Torika DELAI (FIJ)
Head-to-Head: Tahiti and New Caledonia have met only twice in a senior competitive match – they’ve each won one match each.
Tahiti:1. Corail HARRY (GK), 2. Mihitua TIHONI, 3. Hana KIMITETE, 4. Joelle TEPEA, 6. Maite TEIKIAVAITOUA, 7. Teatarii MARAETEFAU, 8. Lanihei RUA, 9. Heimiri ALVAREZ, 10. Tiare TEKAKIOTERAGI, 11. Tahia TAMARII, 12. Vahuariki TUFAU, 13. Hanihei TAUMAA, 14. Hitiana LONG TANG, 15. Raihei TETAURU, 16. Vahinerii PURAGA (GK), 17. Kiani WONG, 18. Heidy MARAE, 19. Carole TEOTAHI, 20. Ninauea HIOE
Coach: Stéphanie SPIELMANN (TAH)
New Caledonia: 1. Lorenza HNAMANO (GK), 2. Josiane AYAWA, 3. Moisette BROUSTET, 4. Claire KAEMO, 5. Glenda JAINE, 6. Marilyse LOLO, 7. Cassidy CAWA, 8. Kamene XOWIE, 9. Jackie PAHOA, 10. Aurélie LALIE, 11. Kim MAGUIRE, 12. Bernadette EURIBEARI, 13. Madeleine JAINE, 14. Kathleen NEMOUARE, 15. Darnelle HACE, 16. Ivonne XOWI, 17. Shaya IHMELING, 18. Sydney GATHA, 19. Ami-Nata AJAPUHNYA, 20. Dolores BODEOUAROU (GK), 21. Céline XOLAWAWA, 22. Cinthia PAITA, 23. Dominique NEXON
Coach: Kamali FITIALEATA (NCL)