Oceania's Womens Olympic Qualifiers - Road to London Set for Kick-off

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The journey towards the Women’s Football Tournament at the 2012 London Olympics begins in just a few days as Tonga gets set to host Stage 1 of the Oceania qualifiers from 1-7 March.

Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu will compete in a round-robin tournament at the Loto-Tonga Centre in Tongatapu with the group stage followed by a final, the winner of which will go on to play number one seed New Zealand in a home-and-away play-off scheduled for 31 March and 4 April.

Of the four teams, Vanuatu is the only country making its debut at women’s Olympic level while Papua New Guinea are the heavy favourites. Tonga are expected to provide the strongest challenge and will be keen to put on a good showing in front of their home fans while Samoa have not taken part in an international tournament since the 2007 Pacific Games, an event which doubled as Stage 1 of the qualifiers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Papua New Guinea and Tonga both competed in the 2010 Pacific Games, held last October and September in New Caledonia, but that tournament could not be used as the Olympic qualifiers on this occasion due to the participation of Guam, a non-OFC member.

The favouritism of Papua New Guinea is due to their title win in Noumea – a groundbreaking third gold medal in a row – and coach Steven Mune has kept the majority of that squad together while making a handful of new additions. Eleven players remain from the triumphant Pacific Games group and their experience makes Mune’s charges the most match-hardened of the sides.

The Tongan line-up has a more youthful look to it but still contains many players who have previously tasted international football – at OFC age-group or senior tournaments – and they will not be short of confidence after an impressive showing at the Pacific Games. Tonga reached the semi-finals, where they were narrowly beaten by hosts New Caledonia, and anything less than a final berth in the Olympic qualifiers will be a disappointment to coach Lui Muavesi.

Vanuatu and Samoa are the tournament’s underdogs as, aside from several sporadic friendly matches, neither side has been active on the international scene in recent months. Vanuatu did compete at the 2010 OFC Nations Cup though and the lessons learned from that campaign – which resulted in three losses and the scoring of only one goal – should prove invaluable in Tonga. Eight of those players remain in the squad and coach Florian Sam, formerly an accomplished player himself at club level in New Caledonia, will look to them to provide the impetus for Vanuatu’s challenge.

In contrast, Samoa have only two survivors from their last tournament outing – an underwhelming performance as hosts of the Pacific Games five years ago – and coach Tala Saveaalii has placed his faith largely in talent untested at this level. But Samoan football is on a high at the moment after the men’s national side qualified for Stage 2 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ last November. The women will be keen to follow in their male counterparts’ footsteps and likewise progress to the second stage of qualifying for a major tournament.

Stage 1 of the women’s Olympic qualifiers will consist of two matches per day on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th of March, with kick-offs set for 1pm and 3.30pm (local time). The 3rd/4th play-off and final take place on 7 March, also kicking off at 1pm and 3.30pm respectively.

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