Olympic Qualifier set to kick off in Suva

The road to next year’s Tokyo Olympics will begin for eight Oceania teams with the opening Match Day of the OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifier 2019 tournament on Saturday in

Group A rivals Solomon Islands and American Samoa will kick off the competition at Suva’s ANZ Stadium before Samoa face top seeded New Zealand in the later kick-off.

On Sunday the attention will turn to Group B in Lautoka, where Vanuatu meet Papua New Guinea, followed by Tonga’s clash with the hosts who will be hoping to represent Oceania again at the Olympics, after flying the OFC flag at the 2016 Games in Brazil.

With qualification for a major global sporting event at stakes, all eight teams have arrived in Fiji both physically and mentally well prepared.

On the back of plenty of hard work over the past few months as well as some useful build-up matches leading up to the tournament, Solomon Islands coach Batram Suri is confident his players are in a great shape to kick off their campaign.

“The boys are looking sharp and ready,” he said.

“We’ve played a few friendly games against the Solomon Warriors and Henderson Eels and we did very well against them and we believe we arrived here ready to take on anybody, including New Zealand in on our pool,” Suri explained.

With Fiji based Darold Kakasi, his strike partner Adrian Mara and Augustine Waita in midfield the Solomon Islanders have plenty of experienced leaders as well as some young up-and-comers itching to make the step up.

“It’s not just about individuals but the entire team, we have a well balanced squad with a good mix of youth and experience,’ insisted the Solomon Islands coach.

Kakasi who plays for Ba FC in the Fiji national Football League, and coach Suri with years of experience in Fiji with Nadi FC and Nasinu FC, will both have valuable knowledge regarding the local conditions.

“I do know the conditions here and we enjoy playing in the heat. Our first match will kick off at midday, and we have been training at midday in similar heat in our academy in Honiara so we are used to it,” explained Suri.

“I know there is a big local Solomon Islands community in Suva and I hope they will come out to support us and also some of my friends from the time I’ve been here,” the Solomons coach added.

Suri admits he has limited knowledge of their first opponents American Samoa, but he is confident his side will be able to deal with any challenge thrown at them.

“I don’t know much about American Samoa, and it’s not easy to come up with a strategy when you are not sure about their style and the type of football they play, so it will be a challenge.

“But it’s a challenge we are looking forward to. It’s important we start strong and we score goals,” said Suri.

American Samoa are also full of confidence going into their opening encounter and coach Stephen Settle couldn’t be happier with his side’s preparations for the tournament.

“The  boys have been working extremely hard in the past few months and our fitness level is high, they have been pushing each other and they are very excited for the opportunity,” he said.

Settle insists his side came to Fiji with high ambitions.

“We want to compete, we are not here just to make up the numbers. We will face Solomons, New Zealand and Samoa and we want to advance to the knock out stage,” he said.

“We have a great group of boys who have worked really hard. We are a family, we have a lot of togetherness and when you are a family you fight for each other and this group is ready to do that,” Settle explained.

Although the American Samoans are under no illusion about the challenge they will face in their opening match, the coach is adamant his team can’t wait for kick off.

“We haven’t been able to find too much about the Solomons other than what we saw with their senior team just recently at the Pacific Games, where our boys faced them. We are familiar with their high technical abilities, we know they are extremely fit, but we can’t wait and we know we are going to be in for a very good game,” he insisted.

Samoa will face top ranked New Zealand in the second match of the opening day and despite the enormity of their task coach Desmond Edward is adamant his players won’t be overwrought.

“We have high expectations and we want some positive results. New Zealand will be tough, our first job is to stop them from scoring, then we need to compete,” he said.

“We have started our preparations two months ago and we have been in camp for the past two weeks. I think the boys and the team are ready. For most of the boys this is the first time in Fiji and they are excited to get on the field and see some real action,” added Edward.

The Samoans arrived in Fiji with a young but well balanced squad according to their coach.

“Most of our players are under 20, but I trust them and I have confidence in their ability both in their physical fitness and their mentality. They have been playing together for a long time, and some of our other players have senior national team experience so we have a good mix,” he explained.

The coach is also hoping the conditions in Fiji will help his side.

“The weather is similar that we are used to back home so I think the boys will enjoy these conditions,’ said Edward.

Meanwhile, after missing out on qualification for the last Olympics, New Zealand won’t be needing any extra motivation in their quest to secure their place in Tokyo.

And according to coach Des Buckingham the Kiwis left no stone unturned to achieve their goal.

“We’ve been fortunate in the past 18 months to build on what was a really good U-20 campaign, which a lot of these players have been a part of.  We also tried to grow our pool to over 20 players and we have worked with over 70 players over the past 18 to 19 months,” he explained.

“We’ve had the U-20 World Cup from there we went to the Pacific Games with a very similar group that is here, and we’ve just had two games against Australia prior to arrive here so we’ve had great preparations,” Buckingham added.

The New Zealand coach has assembled a young but experienced U-23 squad, which he believes is primed to get the job done.

“We have a  good mix with some youth as well as All Whites that represented the senior team including Logan Rogerson, Clayton Lewis, Myer Bevan, Logan Rogerson, Noah Billingsley and Liberato Cacace and we also have some other young Wellington Phoenix players like Ben Waine who has just broken onto the scene,” said Buckingham.

Apart from getting the results the Kiwi coach also wants to see an attractive style of football from his players.

“We want to play well, we want to play a style of football that we showcased on the world stage and also just recently against Australia.

“The most important thing to me that the players continue to showcase that and of course in a tournament where there is only one spot up for grabs for Tokyo, we will try to take that one spot, but we know it’s going to be tough,” Buckingham explained.

Acutely aware of starting the tournament in a positive fashion, the New Zealanders are careful not to underestimate Samoa in their opener.

“I was really impressed with Samoa when we played them in the groups stage at the Pacific Games with our full senior side.  I was really impressed with the way they’ve set up and they were the team that scored past us in the group stage so we expect a real tough challenge,” the New Zealand coach said.

“The first game is always important and you can’t look past that opening game but we can only focus on us. I’m sure they will be well prepared but we will be ready to start our campaign,” added Buckingham.