Eight Oceania nations will line up on Saturday seeking to earn one of two tickets on offer to the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017. The stakes are higher than ever before with a second ticket to the world stage on offer to Oceania aspirants for the first time.

Hosts Tahiti will headline Group A alongside New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Group B sees holders New Zealand drawn with preliminary-stage champions Samoa, Fiji and Solomon Islands.

The four semi-finalists at the OFC U-17 Championship will line-up on 21 February with passage to India 2017 the rich prize on offer. The tournament will conclude three days later with New Zealand favourites to retain a title they have held since Australia exited the confederation in 2005.

Kiwis building for the future
New Zealand’s squad, with one exception, are home-based. The Wellington Phoenix Academy and Onehunga Sports provide five and four players respectively, while the lone player based overseas is Brisbane Roar midfielder Oliver Duncan.

Former New Zealand and Leeds United defender Danny Hay holds the team’s coaching reins and he will be joined by two other former All Whites’ captains in assistant Chris Zoricich and goalkeeper coach Jason Batty.

As always, the focus will be split between developing players and achieving results. “My job as a coach is to win the tournament because we’re all about winning,” said Hay. “But it’s also about giving these boys an understanding of the style of play, and the roles and responsibilities within that in terms of the way New Zealand teams are playing going forward.

“The reality is that the other island nations are very good these days – they’ve got really good programmes in place and a lot of their players are working full-time together, so they’re going to be a real challenge. We’re certainly not going there underestimating any of our opponents.”

Tahiti aim high
The tournament marks the biggest international football event to hit French Polynesia since the hosting of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in 2013. And with an extra spot up for grabs, hopes are high for the Polynesian hosts following their agonising penalty shoot-out defeat against New Zealand in this tournament two years ago.

Federation president Thierry Ariiotima said a return to the world stage is a priority after the success of the nation’s Beach Soccer team, as well as Tahiti’s unexpected qualification for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.

The U-17 national team were thrown into the hurly-burly of the local senior competition as part of their preparation. “We missed out on the futsal, we missed out with the national team, and we missed out on the U-20s,” said Ariiotima. “The U-17s absolutely have to win this tournament.

“Putting the U-17 team into Ligue 1 was a good idea even if some clubs weren’t on board. It’s the best way for our young footballers to reach another level.”

Interest will also focus on five players who recently participated in the inaugural OFC Education Centre. Fiji’s Mohammed Naizal, Samoa’s Eti Fatu, Papua New Guinea’s Emmanuel Simongi, Vanuatu’s Abert Vanva and Solomon Islands’ Steward Toata were all selected for the Auckland-based programme, attending school, training with OFC coaches, and learning life skills before returning to their home countries.