OFC: The long road to the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Korea Republic begins in Tonga on Tuesday when four of the region’s emerging football nations vie for a place at the OFC U-20 Championship later this year.
Only the winner of the OFC Championship Preliminary tournament, which includes Tonga, Cook Islands, Samoa and American Samoa, will advance to the OFC U-20 tournament in Vanuatu.
The four teams will play each other once in a round-robin competition, with the team finishing on top after the three matches qualifying for the 21st edition of the OFC U-20 Championship in September.
Tonga will be attempting to take full advantage of playing in front of the home crowd in the opening match against Cook Islands.
The two sides have met just once before at U-20 level with the 2001 encounter ending in a 1-1 draw.
Tonga coach Tevita Moala says his squad has been in training since the beginning of this year and are fully prepared for the challenge ahead.
“Our journey was not easy, but we managed to overcome those hurdles that we faced.
“I trust my boys, and they also trust me,” Moala says.
“I am aiming to qualify for the second stage, like all other coaches and I am not alone because my boys are also looking further to the second stage.’’
Cook Islands are full of confidence that they can prevail away from home and qualify for Vanuatu, a feat coach Tuka Tisam previously managed when he saw the U-17 squad through to the 2013 OFC U-17 Championship.
A number of those players are returning with Tisam for this tournament and he believes his charges have what it takes to prevail despite the tough competition.
“Winning this competition is our ultimate goal if we are looking ahead to Vanuatu,” Tisam says.
“I am going in with confidence that our team will perform well in Tonga.”
Tisam has some element of history on his side, with his U-17 squad having secured a 7-1 victory over their Tongan opponents back in 2013. Maro Bonsu-Maro and Sunai Joseph were both goal scorers in that encounter and will no doubt be keen to add to their record against Tonga at this level.
While that record certainly lends favour to the Cook Islands cause, Tisam is far from taking an early victory for granted and expects Tonga, and all the competing sides, to put up a strong challenge.
“I’m not too sure about our opponents but I know it will be a very physical tournament which my players are aware of.”
In the other contest on the opening match day, Samoa will face neighbours American Samoa at 3pm.
Samoa haven’t made an appearance at a regional U-20 tournament since 2007, while rivals American Samoa have turned out at two of the last three championships.
The Samoans were the first team to arrive in Tonga to help familiarise themselves with the conditions and coach Paul Ualesi believes that may give them the edge in what will be a highly competitive tournament.
“It’s been very good to get to Tonga early,” Ualesi says.
“The boys enjoy the camp environment, they are getting to know each other better on and off the field.
“It’s especially important for our overseas based players,” the coach adds.
“The spirit is really high and we are growing in confidence, we believe we can qualify.”
American Samoa have travelled with a very young squad, with eight of the side eligible to play at the OFC U-17 championship in July, as well as four overseas-based players from Seattle, Arizona and Hawaii.
Despite their inexperience, the young side are hopeful of a good showing in Tonga.
“Our boys know that it is going to be difficult to advance to the second stage because we have never advanced in this format,” manager Tavita Taumua says.
American Samoa picked up their first points in this competition in 2014 when they held Papua New Guinea to a 1-1 draw.
They also held Samoa to a 2-2 draw during the U-17 preliminary in 2013 and while it was three years ago, can be confident that recent results mean a favourable result could be on the cards for the young side.