11 Jun 2024

OFC Men's Nations Cup: Hosts Fiji and Vanuatu eye title as All Whites name young squad

11:35 am on 11 June 2024
Dynamic midfielder Setareki Hughes was an instrumental part of Rewa FC’s run to the semi-finals at last month’s OFC Men’s Champions League 2024 in Tahiti. Photo: OFC/Phototek

Dynamic midfielder Setareki Hughes was an instrumental part of Rewa FC’s run to the semi-finals at last month’s OFC Men’s Champions League 2024 in Tahiti. Photo: OFC / Phototek

The 2024 OFC Nations Cup championship kicks off in Suva and Port Vila on 15 June, with the hosts both excited about their chances of claiming the top title.

Fiji will take to the field at this year's OFC Men's Nations Cup 2024 with the unexpected advantage of being co-hosts.

OFC said with Vanuatu unable to host both groups in the tournament due to the unforeseen issues with national airline Air Vanuatu, Fiji ably stepped in and will host all Group B matches at the HFC Bank Stadium.

Group B has Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tahiti, while Vanuatu will host the Group A matches that includes New Zealand and the Solomon Islands.

New Caledonia have pulled out because of the political unrest that shook the island in the last month.

Defending champions New Zealand have named a squad of 21, including 10 under-23 players, and it could be the All Whites preparation for the Summer Olympics in Paris next month.

There is room for six uncapped players in the squad also.

Fiji sets sight on pool games

The Fijians, under head Coach Rob Sherman, were already a strong contender, OFC Media reported, adding they will surely now head into their campaign with added confidence knowing they will be backed by a partisan home crowd.

Sherman has selected a number of players who were part of the team that reached the final of the men's Olympic qualifying tournament in Auckland late last year, as well as some who were part of last month's Rewa side at the OFC Men's Champions League 2024 in Tahiti.

Star player Roy Krishna is expected to lead the side again.

Dynamic midfielder Setareki Hughes, who was an instrumental part of Rewa FC's run to the semi-finals at last month's OFC Men's Champions League, is also named in the squad.

Sherman is keeping his and the team's focus on their opening match against Papua New Guinea on 16 June.

"I don't put too much on past performances. The game is constantly evolving and nations that were once weak have improved so I take every opponent on their current form and style of play," Sherman said.

"I am looking forward to the challenge and opportunity. Gaining FIFA ranking points is crucial and impacts on the World Cup qualification grouping, so every game presents an opportunity for points and progress within the tournament," he continued.

Emerging talents such as Nabil Begg and Brendan McMullen have been included, and Sherman said there is no individual star.

"I won't single out any one player as each one has a role to fulfill and often we overlook the ones who undertake their role with little fuss or panache but are hugely effective," he said.

"I'm more interested to see if our style of play is becoming embedded and refined with players finding the opportunity to bring their A-game to the fore."

Fiji will then face Samoa on June 19 and battle Tahiti on 22 June.

The top two teams from the group will then travel to Port Vila for the semi-finals.

Fiji squad: (Goalkeepers): Aydin Mustahib, Joji Vuakaca, Isikeli Sevanaia; (Defenders): Gabierieli Matanisigia, Lekima Gonerau, Atonio Tuivina, Filipe Baravilala, Sterling Vasconcellos, Scott Wara, Ivan Kumar; (Midfielders): Setareki Hughes, Tevita Warainivalu, Sitiveni Cavuilagi, Nabil Begg, Merill Nand, Brendan McMullen, Thomas Dunn, Mohammed Raheem, Mosese Nabose; (Forwards): Roy Krishna, Rusiate Matarerega, Etonio Dogalau, Sairusi Nalaubu.

New coach for Vanuatu

Tournament co-hosts Vanuatu are preparing with a new coach and a renewed sense of optimism as they look to make home advantage count later this month.

Former Solomon Islands Futsal Coach Juliano Schmeling is now in charge for the campaign.

Australian A-League champion Brian Kaltack will lead the side, following a successful 2024 season with Central Coast Mariners.

OFC Media said Schmeling's first squad is heavy on experience and includes a number of Ifira Black Bird FC players, who were in Tahiti last month for the OFC Men's Champions League - amongst them Dick Sablan, Godine Tenene and Spokey Jack Johnathan.

The national side have been building strongly in recent months, with a 4th place finish at the Pacific Games in Honiara at the end of last year, along with a semi-final appearance at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in New Zealand in September.

While home crowds will surely prove a boost when Kaltack leads his team onto the field for their opening match against Solomon Islands, it will be a tough challenge to advance from Group A, with New Caledonia and defending champions and favourites New Zealand making up the quartet.

Playing in front of what is sure to be a passionate fanbase is an experience that Schmeling is looking forward to.

"We want to play well in front of our nation so we need to work together as much as we can to represent Vanuatu well in this Nations Cup," he said.

The most pressing challenge for Schmeling will be to hit the ground running, with a group of players he hasn't had much time to work with following his recent appointment to the role.

"I just arrived three days before the final list was submitted," he explained.

"As you can see, I didn't have much time to assess the players, so for this Nations Cup all we could do was to select players that I already knew, players with more experience in the international level."

Vanuatu squad: (Goalkeepers): James Iamar, Dgen Leo, Dick Sablan; (Defenders): Michael Coulon, Jason Thomas, Tasso Jeffery, Lency Philip, Kerry Yawak, Brian Kaltack, Timothy Messeck Boulet, Jared Nathan Clark; (Midfielders): Jason Timatua, Alick Worworbu, Bong Kalo, Johnwel Wohale, John Alick, Claude Aru, Barry Mansale; (Forwards): Spokey Jack Johnathan, Kency Tangis, Godine Tenene, Alex Saniel, Jose Moses.

Finn Surman captained New Zealand at the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina and will be looking to add to this single cap for the senior side this month.

Finn Surman captained New Zealand at the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina and will be looking to add to this single cap for the senior side this month. Photo: Marcelo Endelli / FIFA via Getty Images

Olympics warm-up for New Zealand

The New Zealand team at the Nations Cup event will be using the tournament to warm-up before the Paris Olympics.

The defending champions have gone for a mix of youth and experience in their squad.

Coach Darren Bazeley wants a sixth OFC Nations Cup title too.

OFC Media said with the 2020 edition having been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand's success in 2016 represents the last time the OFC Men's Nations Cup was held, when the Kiwis overcame Papua New Guinea on penalties in Port Moresby to lift the trophy.

The timing of the tournament and with many New Zealand talents based in Europe, has meant that Bazeley has been presented with a slight challenge in finalising the squad.

"It's come at the end of European leagues for some players and mid-league for other players, which has made it a little bit difficult," he told OFC.

"We've finalised the squad and, going well, we can now have a strong All Whites squad with a lot of experience, but also we can blend in some younger players that will give them a chance to push their names forward for Olympic selection as well."

For the uncapped players, the opportunity to make their international bow in a tournament environment, as opposed to an international friendly, is something that Bazeley feels could be a positive experience for those younger players.

"Part of the reason why the Nations Cup is so important is that it's tournament competition games," he said.

"Those players are going to have a great experience. You know, all of them have played in Oceania tournaments at different age groups, whether that's Under-23, Under-20 or Under-17, so they're not coming in having never played in the islands," Bazeley continued.

Four of the New Zealand squad will play their club football on home soil next season for the newly formed Auckland FC in the Australian A-League. A development that Bazeley sees as another huge boost to the development of the game in Aotearoa.

"Auckland coming into the A-League is massive for New Zealand. You know, it means we've now got two professional pathways for younger players, but also for experienced players like Tommy Smith and Cam Howieson that are, you know, a little bit older than some of the others.

"I think it's a great vehicle for professional football in this country."

With New Caledonia's withdrawal from the competition, it leaves New Zealand with just two group stage matches, kicking off against Solomon Islands on Tuesday, June 18 before their second fixture against co-hosts Vanuatu on Friday, June 21.

New Zealand squad; (Goalkeepers): Max Crocombe, Alex Paulsen, Oli Sail; (Defenders): Lukas Kelly-Heald, Finn Surman, Tommy Smith, Tyler Bindon, Liberato Cacace, Sam Sutton, Tim Payne; (Midfielders): Alex Rufer, Ben Old, Cam Howieson, Fin Conchie, Eli Just; (Forwards): Kosta Barbarouses, Max Mata, Alex Grieve, Jesse Randall, Ben Waine, Oskar van Hattum.