Friday 16 November 2018, 05:56

Pacific aspirants chasing passage to France

  • Two-week championship to decide Oceania’s lone spot at France 2019

  • Retuned New Zealand start as favourites

  • All OFC nations participate for the first time

Oceania’s leading contenders have had to wait 18 months since global qualification for the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ began, but finally they will have their chance to earn a spot among the elite. With Africa kicking-off their final stage of qualifying on Saturday, Oceania's finale is the last to get underway.

Commencing on Sunday in New Caledonia, eight nations will vie for a single ticket to France. And if that prize is not rich enough reward, the continent’s lone spot at the 2020 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo is also on offer.

For the first time all 11 OFC Member Associations will have taken part in the OFC Women’s Nations Cup. Fiji topped a four-team preliminary qualifying competition in August, but for several nations the coming fortnight will mark their first competitive outings for years.

The tournament dates all the way back to 1983, when New Caledonia last hosted. This year’s edition sees the tournament come full circle, with the Melanesian nation returning to the tournament for the first time since their debut over three decades ago.

2018 OFC Women’s Nations Cup 18 November–1 December, New Caledonia Group A: New Caledonia, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti Group B: Tonga, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Zealand

Kiwis hit reset Five-time champions and current holders New Zealand will start as hot favourites. After a couple of player retirements and two coach changes in quick succession, the Football Ferns have brought in highly-regarded former USA and Australia coach Tom Sermanni to steady the ship.

Regular goalscorers’ Amber Hearn and Hannah Wilkinson are out with knee injuries, leaving Rosie White as the main outlet in attack. “It has been a crazy year for the Ferns,” said White. “It is time for us to have a clean slate and we are all looking forward now. I will need to step up in their [Hearn and Wilkinson’s] absence.”

Hosts make welcome return New Caledonia are competing for the first time in 35 years, and with just 1200 registered female players the host nation face a significant challenge, although they have undoubtedly made progress in the past couple of years. The Melanesians finished runners-up at the past two Pacific Games, and came second at the most recent OFC U-16 Women's Championship – their best-ever continental achievement.

PNG face fresh test Papua New Guinea have constantly been the main challengers to New Zealand’s 11-year grip on the continental title, winning all three editions of the Pacific Games in that period. The nation achieved a milestone moment with its hosting of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2016, but preparations for these qualifiers have been limited. There are a number of graduates from that U-20 national team, but familiar figure and long-serving captain Deslyn Siniu is absent.

Long time coming For some nations, returning to the international stage is a triumph in itself. Samoa are competing in their first Nations Cup since 2003, and recently played a couple of matches against Fiji. For Tahiti, 2018 makes their return to international football for the first time in seven years.

Under respected coach Stephanie Spielmann, who has just returned from the FIFA Coach Mentorship program, the Vahine Ura have been working hard on making up for lost time. “Catching up on seven years without competition in six months is a difficult task,” said Spielmann. “One of our principle difficulties for this tournament is giving these players a taste of the competition, and they’ll have to familiarise themselves with the rigours of this level of football.”

Polynesian flag-bearers Though Tonga’s men’s national teams are routinely seeded into OFC preliminary rounds, the women’s national team are comparative regulars on the continental stage. This edition will mark their fourth Women’s Nations Cup in succession, a figure bettered only by New Zealand and PNG. Quirkily, their squad includes a couple of players from the side which made a splash on the futsal court at the recent Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.