Young stars aim to shine as football cup returns after four years

New Zealand's Max Mata in action in the 2018 event Photo: OFC via Phototek

After a four year absence the best young male players from across Oceania will again contest the Oceania U-19 Championship which kicks off on Wednesday in Tahiti.

All 11 OFC member nations are taking part including reigning champions New Zealand, two-time winners and hosts Tahiti, and 2014 conquerors Fiji.

Not only will the two finalists play for the trophy in the tournament showpiece on Saturday, September 24, but they will both earn qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023 being held in Indonesia.

Teams were drawn into two groups of four teams and one group of three teams at the draw in July. The group winners and runners-up from each group will progress to the quarter-final stage, as well as the two highest-ranked third-placed teams.

From there, the remaining eight teams will battle into the semi-finals and then the final to see who is crowned OFC U-19 champions and establish which two nations qualify for next year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Here’s what we might expect from the teams.

Group A

Only Australia, who are no longer affiliated with OFC, have won this competition more times than seven-time winners New Zealand and the reigning champions will be strong favourites again in 2022.

However, they will face a tough challenge against Solomon Islands, who are without star player Raphael Lea’i as he tries to gain a professional contract in Turkey.

American Samoa have named an entirely domestic based group of players for their first group stage appearance since 2014 while the Cook Islands have named six players who took part in Nikao Sokattak’s recent OFC Champions League campaign.

Group B

Hosts Tahiti were runners-up four years ago and are two-time winners, including the first ever champions back in 1974. They hosted the event on that occasion, and again when triumphant in 2008, so will hope for more home success.

After two consecutive group stage exits following their 2014 title win Fiji will be looking to improve and a recent 1-1 draw with New Zealand in preparation for the tournament will give them a boost. Papua New Guinea will look to take inspiration from the women’s team who won the OFC Women’s Nations Cup in July. Tonga will be looking to escape from the group stage for the first time.

Group C

New Caledonia finished third four years ago and have been in the top four in the past four editions of the competition and will be looking to continue that trend. Vanuatu finished as runners-up in both 2014 and 2016 and will be looking to make up for their group stage exit in 2018.

Samoa round out the group and have spread their net far and wide in the hunt for talent, with players based in Australia, New Zealand, Qatar and the United States all featuring.

Source: RNZ