21 Jan 2019

Sport: Cook Islands football champs welcome home advantage

12:27 pm on 21 January 2019

Cook Islands football champions Tupapa Maraerenga are hoping home advantage will work in their favour as they seek a return to the OFC Champions League main draw.

The Avarua club secured a seventh national title in the past nine seasons at the end of November to earn a spot in the Champions League qualifying stage, alongside Kiwi FC from Samoa, Tonga's Lotohaʻapai United and Pago Youth from American Samoa.

Tupapa Maraerenga are the dominant force in Cook Islands domestic football.

Tupapa Maraerenga are the dominant force in Cook Islands domestic football. Photo: Tupapa Maraerenga Football Club

Tupapa head coach Delaney Yaqona said an extended domestic season presented new challenges to the squad as they prepared for their Oceania campaign.

"It was a particularly longer season because we had three rounds as opposed to the normal two rounds and so it was just a matter of managing the players at the end of the season and giving them a bit of a break before they started preparing for the Champions League," he said.

"Preparations are coming along. We've got ten boys based here locally - can't complain too much about it. As we say, families are on the island and players wanting to meet up with families and things like that so just slowly negotiating all that kind of stuff throughout the festive season.

"But otherwise quite happy with where the boys are at at the moment and we're just waiting for our overseas based players to arrive on Wednesday (local time), which gives us a good three training days before first game kicks off on Saturday."

Delaney Yaqona has been in charge of Tupapa Maraerenga since 2010 but missed last year's campaign, in which the Cook Islands club went unbeaten through the Qualifying Stage to reach the main draw for the first time since 2001.

Tupapa Maraerenga sealed their spot in the OFC Champions League main draw.

Tupapa went unbeaten through last year's Qualifying Stage. Photo: Oceania Football Confederation (OFC)

The veteran coach is keen to oversee a repeat performance.

"A couple of years ago [in 2016] we did host the tournament and we got ourselves into a real comfortable position after the first game and then in our second game everything just changed and so we ended up finishing second in the tournament, which is quite hard to swallow playing at home," he said.

"Now that we've got it back here and we're hosting again that is definitely the aim to win the tournament and put us in a good position for the next stage, the Champions League.

"But of course that brings its pressure, as it normally does, but hopefully this time the boys are better prepared and a bit more experienced - let's put it that way - playing in front of our home crowd."

Tupapa Maraerenga are seeking back to back OFC Champions League Qualifying Stage victories.

Tupapa Maraerenga are seeking back to back OFC Champions League Qualifying Stage victories. Photo: OFC Media

Tupapa Maraerenga will have ten locally based players for the Qualifying Stage, which kicks off this weekend, with half a dozen overseas-based players set to arrive in Rarotonga on Wednesday local time to bolster the squad.

"The good thing with us," point out Delaney Yaqona, "is that the overseas players who are coming to join us - the non Cook Islands players - have played for the club in the last three to four years."

"So they're well versed with the boys who are locally based here and how they play and of course the other boys that we are bringing in are obviously Cook Island boys who have played for us for a while.

"Even though we've got about six or seven players coming in they have played for the club before and so we're all familiar with each other so it shouldn't make too much of a disruption to the first game...on Saturday.

As has been the case since 2017, the top two teams from the Qualifying Stage will advance to the OFC Champions League main draw, which kicks off next month.