The Pacific Games starts tonight and Football in Oceania will give you everything you need to know ahead of the XVI Pacific Games in Samoa for both the men and women’s sides.
The tournament is the second most important one in the football world of Oceania, behind the Nations Cup. It has previously been used as an Olympic Qualifier for the men, but will this year be a fully-fledged senior competition, as it is with the women.
As previously reported, there will be no semi-finals at this tournament as scheduling didn’t allow for it. Rather, the two group winners will play in the gold medal final, while the two runners-up will play for the bronze medal.
New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea are the reigning champions, for the men and women respectively.
Group A: Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand U23, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu
Group B: New Caledonia, American Samoa, Tuvalu, Tahiti, Fiji, Solomon Islands
Group A: Samoa, Fiji, American Samoa, Tonga, New Caledonia
Group B: Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, Vanuatu
We start with the hosts of the tournament. Their medal chance lies with the women, but that’s still somewhat of a longshot. They performed well in the Nations Cup last December, but didn’t get out of the group stage there.
Nonetheless, a bit of luck and a couple of other results going their way and they could find themselves in the bronze final. Fiji will probably be topping this group, but New Caledonia could be beatable.
As for the men’s side, they will probably fall short of reaching a medal match. But they could well hold their own in a few of the matches and will be expected to at least not finish bottom of the group.
We make the very short jump between the two Samoa nations to give you some big news. Two legends of American Samoan football will be returning to the pitch. Goalkeeper Nicky Salapu and defender Jaiyah Saelua will be donning the American Samoan kit again. Salapu is an excellent goalkeeper, while defender Saelua is the first-ever transgendered player to play in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier, as documented in the excellent documentary “Next Goal Wins”.
As for their chances, both the men and women’s team will most likely not reach a medal match. The squads they have sent are both very young, with the majority of the men’s side having played in the various OFC youth championships.
For the women, only three players are over the age of 20 years, but they have been training together since the end of February. Despite the preparations, the lack of experience could be proving costly, however.
The Cooks have only sent their women’s team this year and they are out hunting for a medal. They got a, somewhat, surprising medal last time out and will be looking to repeat that. If they are to do that, however, they will need to better their performance from the Nations Cup in December as that left a lot to be desired.
One big blow for the Cooks will be that they have lost goalkeeper Marjorie Toru to netball for the Games. Backup goalkeeper from the Nations Cup, Thea Keith, will most likely be between the sticks this time. She played in the 1-0 loss to Tonga in that tournament but gave a stellar performance despite the loss.
Getting out of a group consisting of Papua New Guinea, 2017 Pacific Mini Games winner Vanuatu and a Tahiti side on the rise, will be difficult, but snatching that second place behind PNG is what the Cooks should be aiming for.
Next up is one of two nations with possibly the strongest medal contender teams combined. The other being PNG. Fiji made a very strong, and a little bit surprising, run to the final in the women’s OFC Nations Cup last year.
From that squad, Trina Davis is the big absentee, while the men’s squad will have the luxury of calling upon Roy Krishna, who just moved to the Indian Super League. Fiji should be hoping for, or expecting, medals from both their teams.
The men’s side are in a tricky group but could navigate it well. One spanner in the works has been the recent suspension of several players for breaking team rules (they have been suspended from all football for several years). None of them were vital but having them come out so close to the tournament, must surely be a nuisance.
The New Caledonian side are hoping for a good showing from both teams.
The men are usually good at this tournament – having taken a medal at every single edition, except for the 1995 version – and the women are really on the rise, bowing out of a good Nations Cup on home soil last year and finishing runners-up at the last two Games.
It’s a strong squad from both teams, at least on paper, but then the question becomes, can they deliver?
So, to New Zealand we go. Plenty of disgruntled voices on the topic of their inclusion, but they’re here and ready to go.
As mentioned they bring an U23 side in order to prepare for the Olympic Qualifiers later this year. It will be interesting to see how they do and if they can compete with the senior sides.
I expect them to get points, but I think getting out of the group stage might just be a bit too much, at least for the gold medal match.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
And here’s perhaps the biggest favourite of them all. The women’s team has won every single edition since it’s inclusion in 2003 and will be hoping for more.
The men’s side is very strong, with all the big names called in for this one. They should be able to win their group, as should the women.
The women come with a strong squad but have left Judith Gunemba and Carolyn Obi at home. Not necessarily two starters, but two very good options to have when you need to rotate.
A strong men’s side is completed by an interesting women’s side for the Solomon Islands. A big question mark hangs over them as they have not showed anything recently that should suggest they will make it out of the group stage, but yet, they could surprise a few.
The men are in such a close fought group that they, like the other big dogs, are a coin flip on whether they go through or not.
Raphael Lea’i, the much talked about talent, is in Wim Rijsbergen’s squad. It will be interesting to see how much game time he gets.
The Tahiti team is another peculiar one. The men’s side is a familiar name for most, and have included Toulouse talent Terai Bremond – who recently played in the U20 World Cup – in their squad.
The women’s team have been restored from the grave, with their participation in the Nations Cup last year marking a big occasion.
That experience will have given them a good push in the direction they need, I still think going through to the medal matches are a bit too much right now, but next time they could be there.
The men will look to win it, no doubt, but again, the question will be if they can beat the other excellent teams in their group.
One of the few nations where the women’s team probably have a bigger chance of getting through to a medal match than the men’s side. That’s not saying Tonga will make it there.
They played good football at times at the Women’s Nations Cup, but their defensive issues left them lacking.
Defensive issues will probably be what let the men down as well. They lost to Tuvalu at the Mini Games in 2017 and will probably struggle for points here.
Here’s the only non-FIFA nation at this years Pacific Games. They beat Tonga at the 2017 Mini Games and will be looking to build on that positive experience. Perhaps American Samoa could be another feather in their cap? Other than that I don’t see them making much noise.
They struggled heavily at the CONIFA World Football Cup in 2018 – some of that could be explained by the astro turf some players had never touched before – and they will need to improve on that.
The squad from the CONIFA WFC is mostly intact and it will be interesting to see what happens.
Vanuatu will look to beat PNG for the top spot in the men’s competition, while the women – who failed to qualify for the Nations Cup – will look to build on their Mini Games win.
A strong squad from men’s coach Paul Munster, who has yet to impress so far during his short time at the helm of Vanuatu. A good result is a must here after a couple of poor performances in friendlies.
For the women, they could fight for the second spot behind PNG. They got knocked out in Nations Cup qualifying, but only one team went through and that was eventual finalists Fiji, so just looking at that result isn’t really a fair marker.