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Monday, November 14, 2011


Two and a half months behind schedule, the qualifying campaign in the Oceania region for the 2014 World Cup and for the OFC Nations Cup 2012 kick off in just under a week and a half's time with a dual-purpose, 2-competitions-in-1 preliminary group, which will be played out over five days from 22/11/11 at the incongruously-named JS Blatter Field in Apia, capital of Samoa (formerly known as Western Samoa).

Four nations are due to take part: American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga.but why behind schedule? The 2011 Pacific Games tournament (won by tournament hosts New Caledonia) were meant to double as the first round of Oceania World Cup qualifying, but AFC member nation Guam took part, thus rendering the OFC's plans unworkable. Guam themselves decined to participate in the Asian qualifiers due to financial constraints and the need to update their national stadium to FIFA standards.

As said, the preliminary round for the OFC Nations Cup also doubles up as the preliminary round for 2014 World Cup qualifying in the Oceania region, and the fixture-list is as follows (kick-off times are at Samoan time):

22/11/11   14:00   American Samoa : Tonga
22/11/11   17:00   Cook Islands : Samoa
24/11/11   14:00   American Samoa : Cook Islands
24/11/11   17:00   Samoa : Tonga
26/11/11   14:00   Samoa : American Samoa
26/11/11   17:00   Tonga : Cook Islands

All matches in the preliminary round will take place at the JS Blatter Field, Apia.

The OFC Nations Cup Finals are scheduled to take place in Fiji between 3/6/11 and 11/6/11. This tournament will also serve as the second round of World Cup qualification, and the top four teams will progress to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, to be played in a round-robin competition which is to be played between 7/9/12-26/3/13. The winner of the third round, in other words, the country which finishes top of the Oceania World Cup qualifying, will progress to an intercontinental play-off in late 2013 against the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF final qualifying group.

The four countries represented in the OFC Nations Cup/Oceania World Cup preliminary group are among the lowest-ranked nations in the FIFA ranking-list. The Cook Islands are currently ranked in 196th place, Tonga are 201st, while American Samoa and their near-neighbours are both placed joint 203rd - dead last, in other words. At least two of the aforementioned national sides may well move up the list by the end of the prelims.

AMERICAN SAMOA are not expected to be one of them. The American territory, with a population of around 55000 people, has only had a football association, now known as the FFAS (Football Federation of American Samoa), since 1984, and it has only been a member of FIFA since 1998. Since joining FIFA, American Samoa has only played foreign opposition in OFC Nations Cup and World Cup qualifying matches - friendlies are a luxury for several of the OFC nations - and has never won a FIFA-sanctioned international match.

They have only ever won one international match, and that was a 3:0 victory against Wallis and Futuna (part of French Polynesia) in an OFC Nations Cup (then known as the Oceania Cup) in 1983. The American Samoans have played over 20 competitive FIFA-sanctioned internationals, losing them all, and have conceded ten goals or more in a match on an alarmingly regular basis. The FFAS took over control of the territory's footballing affairs after its forerunner, the ASFA (American Samoa Football Association), fell foul of FIFA in 2007.

The national side also holds probably the most unwanted record in international football, the record for conceding the most goals in an international match, which became theirs by right after Australia put 31 without reply past hapless goalkeeper Nicky Salapu during a World Cup qualifier in Cotts Harbour on 11/4/01. Salapu missed out on a tournament or two, but he returned to international duty in this summer's Pacific Games, when American Samoa finished bottom, losing all four games and failing to score while conceding 26 goals, including 4 against Tuvalu, who are "merely" an associate member of the OFC.

Things do not look any brighter now for them now as they did before the Pacific Games, and that is without taking into consideration that football in American Samoa is still recovering from the tsunami which struck most of the South Pacific region to one degree or another in 2009, when the country's football complex and national ground were more or less destroyed. To say the least, they will be up against it, and while even a point gained in the group would be welcomed in the extreme, not just in American Samoa but in the football community at large, that may still be beyond them. PREDICTION: Bottom, with no points and a hefty goal-difference against them.

The COOK ISLANDS, meanwhile, will also find it difficult against Samoa and Tonga, but should come away with a win against American Samoa. The Cook Islanders are more famous for competing in Rugby Sevens on the world stage than in football, but their national football team, while among the weakest in Oceania, are still a feisty bunch. They do have a tendency to leak goals, but also have a reputation for not letting their heads drop, and this may well prove to be useful.

The geography of the Cook Islands is a bit of a handicap in the CIFA's efforts to improve the standard of football in the islands; the archipelago's population of some 19000 people is spread amongst fifteen islands and atolls across a stretch of the Pacific Ocean the size of Western Euope. The CIFA (Cook Islands Football Association) was founded in 1971, and became FIFA members in 1994.

Scoring goals is also a problem for the Cook Islands team; they scored 4 goals at the last edition of the Pacific Games - three of which were in a 3:0 win against Kiribati, who, like Tuvalu, are associate members of the OFC - while conceding 15. It may be the lack of goalscorers in the squad which might prove to be the team's downfall, but if they can shore up their defence, the Cook Islands might prove to be a real handful nevertheless. PREDICTION: 3rd in a tight group.

Football in TONGA has had its fair share of ups and downs, from finishing runners-up in the Polynesian Cup, a now-defunct qualifying competition for the OFC Nations Cup, in 1993 to (briefly) holding the world record for sufering the heaviest defeat in international football when they lost 22:0 to Australia in World Cup qualifying in 2001. Political troubles in the country (population estimated at 104000) in recent years haven't helped matters much, nor has the world-wide financial malaise.

Like their counterparts in Guam, the Tongan Football Association, founded in 1965 and FIFA members since 1994, faced an agonising choice: compete in World Cup/OFC Nations Cup qualifiation or compete at the Pacific Games. They couldn't afford to compete in both tournaments. Unlike Guam, the Tongans eventually chose the former option. It was a shame for Tonga's national squad, who had spent 13 weeks in intensive training for the Pacific Games by the time the Tongan FA had made their decision in June not to go ahead with sending the men's squad to New Caledonia. (Conversely, the Tongans sent their national women's team, who finished in a creditable fourth place in their tournament.) Money talks, even in the lower reaches of the international game. 

As the Tongans have not played competively since the 2007 Pacific Games (which also doubled as the OFC preliminary round for the 2010 World Cup) and then won only one match in the tournament, it is rather difficult to gauge how they will fare in Samoa this time round, but judging on results from then and over the last ten years or so (although they, just as the other three teams in this round of matches, are very much an unknown quantity), they may well finish in the top two this time. PREDICTION: Runners-up at worst.

The hosts of the preliminary tournament, SAMOA, also declined to take part in the Pacific Games this time round, instead preferring to concentrate on qualifying for the OFC Nations Cup and attempting to get as far as possible in the World Cup qualifiers. Apia's JS Blatter Field - or, to give the ground its full name, the Toleafoa J.S. Blatter Football Fields Complex - named after the FIFA man himself and opened in 2001, will be hosting its second tournament in four years, having been the host venue or the 2007 Pacific Games. Samoa has the largest population of the four countries competing in the preliminary round, estimated at 179000 people, 5700 of which play football (according to FIFA records), though only 2300 are registered as members of the local football authorities.

Football was properly organised in what was Western Samoa in 1968 with the formation of the Samoa Football Soccer Federation (FSFS), but after financial and other difficulties which eventually led to a FIFA suspension, the organisation was reorganised in 2009 as Football Federation Samoa (FFS) and later re-admitted to FIFA. The Samoan national side have only played two international matches since the country hosted the 2007 Pacific Games, and both were defeats away to Fiji in mid-August of this year, by 3:0 and 5:1, though they thrashed an American Samoan Under-20 side 9:0 in Apia in April.

Kiwi SC won the domestic league championship earlier this year, finishing 5 points in front of last season's champions Moaula United; Kiwi SC's women's team stormed to the league title as well, but in even more emphatic style, winning 16 out of 18 matches and drawing the other two. PREDICTION: Winners, but there probably won't be much in it.

It will be hard to separate Samoa and Tonga, and maybe also the Cook Islands, as the Pacific Games are normally the only occasion when the smaller OFC countries meet each other, and the squad players and their capabilities are virtually unknown outside their respective countries, but only one team can progress to the next round of World Cup qualifiers and the OFC Nations Cup finals next year.

If the smaller nations would at least be able to play against each other on a more regular basis, it might make them all - American Samoa included - more competitive, especially in the more advanced stages of regional competition. Money and the vast distances between all of the OFC are huge obstacles, not to mention a lack of infrastructure and very small pools of players to choose from.

As for the next round of matches, to be played in Fiji next year, the winners of the preliminary round will not have it easy. They will have to play against New Caledonia, Tahiti and Vanuatu in Group A, while the draw for Group B saw Fiji, the favourites New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands pitted together.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------AUTHOR'S NOTE: Much of the above information, including the fixture details for the  2-in-1, dual-purpose OFC Nations Cup and 2014 World Cup preliminary round fixture-list, came from the OFC website, Thanks as ever to Priscilla Duncan from the OFC.

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