Pacific women’s footballers eye Olympic spot at qualifier event in Apia

Vanuatu women's team in Vila before they flew out to Samoa at the weekend. Photo: Vanuatu Football Federation

The 2024 Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Women’s Olympic Qualifier tournament in Samoa will determine who from the region will travel to France in July.

While New Zealand has been the Oceania qualifier four times, the Pacific island teams are going into the Samoan capital Apia with their own objective of getting to play in Paris come 26 July.

Samoa will host the qualifier from 7-19 February.

The Football Ferns are the favourites, having represented Oceania four times at the Olympics since first qualifying in 2008.

Their best result was in 2012 (London) when they reached the quarter-finals.

Coach Jitka Klimkova has selected a powerful squad, which includes two uncapped players in Macey Fraser and Brianna Edwards from the Wellington Phoenix, OFC said.

Klimkova is aware the hot humid conditions in Apia will present unique challenges for her side.

“We have focused a lot on our recovery and how important it’s going to be to really have a proper time when our body is going to get ready for another game in front of us. So all those factors about the conditions in Samoa we considered and we are prepared for it,” Klimkova said.

Despite six notable absences in the squad due to injuries, the Football Ferns still have a plethora of international experience to call on.

Fiji, who lost to New Zealand at the 2020 qualifier finals in New Caledonia, is aiming to go one better this time around.

The Fijian Kula looks to be the favourites from the island teams but they will have to contend with Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands first in pool play.

Fijian Kula captain Cema Nasau receives her jersey from coach Angeline Chua in Ba on Sunday. 4 February 2024

Fijian Kula captain Cema Nasau receives her jersey from coach Angeline Chua in Ba on Sunday. 4 February 2024 Photo: FFA

Kulas confident

The Kulas are determined to go one step further than the last time they chased a spot at the Olympics.

Head coach Angeline Chua said she was satisfied with how her players have prepared for the qualifier, which kicks off on Wednesday.

“We have 23 players in the squad, inclusive of one overseas based player Preeya Singh, and we are happy to have her join us,” Chua said.

“The squad is a mix of top senior players from the South Pacific Games and the best performers from the Young Kulas Team.”

US-based Singh has been joined by the Australia-based trio of Koleta Likuculacula, Seruwaia Vasuitoga, and Adi Anasimeci Volitikoro.

She said the four-overseas based players have brought a lot of experience and game knowledge into the team, which she hopes will be useful in their campaign.

Chua said the positive bonding between both generations of players and the mentorship role of senior players in guiding the younger ones in terms of culture within the camp was encouraging.

The team’s aim to top their group which includes 2023 Pacific Games champions Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and American Samoa.

Fiji will be led by Cema Nasau as captain.

Nasau was named captain on Sunday before the team jets out to Apia on Monday.

Fiji meets American Samoa on Wednesday in their opening game.

NG team ready to fly out of Port Moresby at the weekend.

NG team ready to fly out of Port Moresby at the weekend. Photo: PNG Football

PNG excited

The Papua New Guinea have high hopes heading into the tournament.

OFC says the 2023 Pacific Games gold medallists is one of the sides expected to challenge tournament favourites New Zealand.

Hekari United mentor Eric Komeng has 14 players from his club side in the traveling party.

Komeng has retained the bulk of the players from the Pacific Games winning side that has trained together in Port Moresby for the last two months.

‘We have a strong squad but realise we are in a tough group with the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and American Samoa,” he said.

“Fiji will be out for revenge after our 4-1 win over them in the final of the Pacific Games.”

PNG will battle the Solomons in their pool opener on Wednesday.

Solomons hopes

The Solomon Islands women’s team is hoping to improve their performance and results at the Olympic Games qualifier.

Batram Suri-coached side is optimistic about turning things around this time around.

“We are very much looking forward to the qualifiers, though it’s a short time to get the girls back together after the Pacific Games and the festive break,” Suri told OFC.

“We are putting in a team effort as much as possible to be ready for the challenge ahead.

“I’m confident we can do better than our previous campaign at the games. Although we a grouped in a tough group, I still have the hope we can do better this time.”

Almah Gogoni, 23, is the player to watch and she will be a threat in attack with her quick feet and skills.

Tonga's Mataliki team ready for the Olympic qualifier.

Tonga’s Mataliki team ready for the Olympic qualifier. Photo: Tonga Football

Tonga’s young star

Tama’a Faletau, 16, is the player to watch in the Mataliki womens football team from Tonga.

Tonga Football says Faletau has captured the imagination of fans and officials alike with her skills and knowledge of the game.

“Faletau embodies the future of Tongan football, offering a glimpse into the potential that lies ahead,” head coach Kilifi Uele told Tonga Football.

Tonga has four overseas-based players who will make their debut at the event.

The four are Telly Vunipola, Lisimani Helu, Leila Haugen, and Eden Makaafi.

“Their inclusion continues to signify the new era for Tongan football, one marked by diversity and talent from around the world,” coach Uele said.

“Among the 27 travelling players, eight hail from last year’s Under-19 team, bringing with them youthful exuberance and a hunger for success. Additionally, two players are included from last year’s Under-16 squad, demonstrating the nation’s commitment to nurturing young talent and building a sustainable footballing future.”

Missing is Lavenia Vaka, who last month became Tonga’s first women football player to play professional football in the United States of America.

But the team boasts seasoned players such as ‘Ana Polovili, Daviana Vaka, and Sachi Swift, whose experience and leadership on the field will be crucial.

Uele said his players are determined and committed to represent Tonga with honour and integrity.

Tonga meets favourites New Zealand, Samoa and Vanuatu in Group B. They meet New Zealand in their first test on Wednesday.

Vanuatu’s mix

Vanuatu has selected a mix of experience and youth in their squad for the event.

OFC said coach Jean Robert Yalou has stuck with consistency ahead of this tournament, with 16 members of the 2023 Pacific Games squad to play in Apia.

Among the 22 players named, six of them are from the U-19 squad that reached the quarterfinals of the 2023 OFC U-19 Women’s Championship.

Yalou wants his side to reach to the semi-finals but they face daunting opposition in Group B from tournament favourites New Zealand, Tonga, and hosts Samoa.

“As a coach, I will take one game at a time,” he said.

“To make any predictions, no; we will see the results just after 90 minutes of play. As all teams want to qualify for the second stage, I also want to qualify for the second stage.”

One player that could stand out is striker Elina Aruhuva, who was a standout at the OFC U-19 Women’s Championship in Fiji last year, scoring four goals at the tournament.

Vanuatu is meeting host Samoa on Wednesday in their opening pool game.