The 2014 edition of the OFC Champions League is the largest we’ve seen in 12 years and potentially the most anticipated as 12 sides compete for the ultimate prize – a ticket to the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco.
The group stage, being held in Lautoka and Ba in Fiji, has seen the 12 participating teams split into three groups of four ensuring fans around the region are set for some interesting and intriguing match ups.
This is the final group preview oceaniafootball.com will bring you ahead of next week’s kick-off of the OFC Champions League group stage.
Group C features hosts Ba FC of Fiji, Hekari United of Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia’s AS Magenta and from Vanuatu, Tafea FC.
Domestic rules that prevent the inclusion of foreign players on the roster for Fiji Football Association tournaments has trickled over into the OFC Champions League this year.
While Ba has always had a heavy local influence they have also enjoyed the spoils of having a player like Nigerian Sanni Issa, 2013 OFC Champions League Golden Ball and Golden Boot, on the team card.
While losing Issa to Vanuatu’s Amicale is a loss, Ba still have a hugely experienced squad to call on. Among those players returning from last season’s semi-final reaching side are Avinesh Kumar, Meli Codro, Jone Vesikula, Aisea Codro and Malakai Kanahewe among others.
Also turning out will be three brothers from Wailotua Village in Wainibuka, Tailevu. Veterans Peni Finau and Leone Vurukania
will be joined by marksman Osea Vakatalesau for the first time. While Vakatalesau and Finau have turned out for Ba and Lautoka in the past, it will be the first time they’ve been on the same side as their eldest sibling.
Club president Rishi Kumar believes coach Yogendra Dutt is putting the side through its paces, just as each coach in the competition will also be doing. And he’s keen to see them exploit the home advantage.
“We know we are in Fiji and we will make the most of that,” he says.
“We will have the home fans and the home ground which will be an advantage to us, we also have players who are experienced in this competition.”
Kumar says Ba’s Group C opponents will be a difficult task to overcome, but he is confident in the side’s abilities.
“We know the opposition are strong teams and they have recruited a number of players from outside which will make it a tough challenge. But we have played them all in the past, we know them and it will be seen once we are on the field.”
Hekari United remain the only non-New Zealand side to win this competition after taking the title and tickets to the FIFA Club World Cup in 2010. While they continue to dominate domestic football, they have struggled to once again unseat the Kiwis, though are confident this could be their year.
At the core of this side are experienced Papua New Guinea players like David Muta, Raymond Gunemba and Kema Jack who are complemented by Solomon Islander Joachim Waroi, Fijians Peter Bolaitoga and Tuimasi Manuca – a key member of that 2010 squad.
Vanuatu’s Brian Kaltak has joined the ranks and will likely be a rock in defence. Younger brother Jean will be making his debut in the competition and looking to be the difference up front that will take this side through to the semi-finals.
Manageress Vonnie Kappi Natto is confident the squad is a good blend of both local and foreign players who will press hard to exit top of the group.
“It will be a big homework assignment for Hekari coach Jerry Allen but we are going there to play and treat all the matches in our group as finals,” Kapi Natto says.
“We are not underestimating anyone but have to work hard to beat them.”
With former France international Alain Moizan at the helm AS Magenta, representing New Caledonia, has bolstered their squad with a number of key signings.
Two names that really stand out are that of former international Pierre Wajoka and the man who replaced him as captain of the national team, Olivier Dokunengo.
Wajoka, 35, retired from international football following New Caledonia’s victory at the 2011 Pacific Games in his home country.
A class above, Wajoka has the experience to make a real difference in the centre of this squad.
Dokunengo was a solid performer throughout the Pacific Games, and led Les Cagous with command during the 2012 Nations Cup and the FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers and will no doubt bring the same competitive drive to this competition.
He’ll be joined in the squad by brother Kouriane who himself is no stranger to international football.
The younger Dokunengo was one of the key members of New Caledonia’s debut beach soccer side which attempted to win through to last year’s FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.
The Wakanumune trio of Loic, Ludovic and Jean-Patrick will also be key to the line-up.
Moizan says the side struggled in the centre of the park last season, something the new recruitments should remedy.
“We had some difficulties last year in the midfield with ball possession, but the arrivals of Olivier and Pierre will give us the experience we need,” he says.
The side’s previous best performance saw them finish runners-up to Sydney FC in 2005 – a reminder Moizan is relying on for inspiration.
“It’s the first thing I mention to my players when I talk to them. The OFC Champions League is a very important competition for us, our goal is clear: we are going to Fiji to win.”
Vanuatu’s Tafea are a young side lacking in appearances at this level but they’re not lacking in talent in any way, shape or form.
The product of the first two Teouma Academy intakes, coach Moise Poida has also called on several more experienced faces in Don Mansale and David Chilia, with Solomon Islands’ Joses Nawo the only import.
Goalkeeper Seiloni Iaruel, who trialled with English club Stoke City in 2012, will be safe hands between the sticks, while youngsters Kevin Shem and Dalong Damalip will add an exciting element to the side.
Poida insists that while drawn in a tough group, his side has the ability and the drive to come out on top.
“The other three clubs are champions in their own countries, so we have to respect this fact,” Poida says.
“I respect this group and regard it as the group of death. We respect Hekari United and we are happy to face them in the first game. It’s not going to be an easy first match but we are ready.
“We have nothing to lose. We respect the clubs competing in the OFC Champions League and fear no one.”
Group C open the 2014 edition of the OFC Champions League with the first match-ups taking place on Monday, 7 April when Tafea take on Hekari United at 1pm before the encounter between Magenta and Tafea FC. Both matches are being played at Govind Park in Ba, Fiji.