Anticipation peaks as MD1 looms

The six teams participating in the 2016 OFC Futsal Championship have hit peak anticipation levels as they countdown the hours to kick-off in what will be one of the most high stakes editions in the history of the event.

While teams like New Zealand and New Caledonia have traditionally struggled to make an impact at this level, the development and commitment from each of the nations here in Suva, Fiji has been massive over the past four years.

Each of them working to build squads that they hope will take them to Colombia and the FIFA Futsal World Cup.

For Tahiti it’s been a long wait after their devastating loss to the Solomon Islands in the hugely memorable 2011 final when they were pulled back from a 4-1 lead to go down 6-4.

However the wait is nearly over as they face the four-time champions in their opener at Vodafone Arena.

“We’ve prepared well for this competition. We have to play Solomon Islands in the first match, and we’re ready,” coach Jacob Tutavae says.

“For me, it’s good because I know I will have all of my players. If we were to play them in the fourth or fifth game, it would be difficult with potential injuries and suspensions, so actually to play them in the first game we’re happy.”

The feeling is similar for incoming Solomon Islands coach Juliano Schmeling who believes no matter who the opening match was against, he would expect it to be difficult.

“I don’t think that it being a rematch of the final adds any extra pressure. I think it is more because the first game is always difficult for any team against any country, I don’t think it’s Tahiti specifically,” the Brazilian says.

“Because of the formula of the competition you have just one game against each other. It will be special in terms of the first game, and it will be tough.”

Solomon Islands and Tahiti will certainly be a much awaited match on day one, but the day’s other encounters are equally intriguing with New Caledonia taking on hosts Fiji, before Vanuatu takes on New Zealand.

New Caledonia went from bottom of the table at 2013’s OFC Futsal Championship Invitational to second only to AFC guests Malaysia in 2014. Some might contribute the leap to home court advantage but coach William Bret believes it’s hard work and a determination to improve and make an impact at international level.

“The competition starts tomorrow and I think everyone wants to get underway, we’re impatient to get started,” Bret says.

“We have a couple of players who have a lot of experience and also, this year, have a lot of younger players who are making progress every day. We have pretty good experience in the team, we’ve been working hard.”

Futsal in Fiji has undergone a very recent revival which coach Intiaz Khan says offers a new, reinvigorated element to the national team.

“Always in the past we had football players, but now we have futsal players at club level too,” he explains.

Opting for a squad that predominantly comes from a futsal-only background has had its challenges, but Khan says it’s the kind of challenges he is relishing.

“There were some strength and conditioning problems, some fitness problems so we’ve got a lot of work over time to do with the players.

“But I’m not saying we’re below the other teams, or above, but we’re up there. We are better than other teams we have fielded in previous years.”

The middle match sees Vanuatu take on New Zealand and given the Futsal Whites beat the Ni-Vanuatu by an Impressive 10-4 margin, coach Scott Gilligan has every right to be confident, but still maintains an element of caution.

“Every team is here to win. Vanuatu for me is the sleeping giant of Oceania, I’ve always said it ever since I started working in Oceania in 2009,” Gilligan says.

“I’m expecting a very quick game from them and also their counter attack is very good so we’ve got to be careful of how we turnover possession.”

Vanuatu’s build-up to Fiji 2016 has included some time spent with former Solomon Islands national coach Dickson Kadau, as well as a pair of futsal coaches from Australia.

Their assistance will surely inject something new and different into the side, while coach Louis Dominique believes preparations have been better than ever.

“We’ve mainly been working on the defence lately with the help of our coaches and they’ve taught us a lot. The preparation has been better than before so we’re looking forward to getting underway,” Dominique says.

He’s been impressed by the progress New Zealand has made under the guidance of Gilligan.

“Obviously it’s an important game for us because it’s one of the strongest teams in Oceania, but we will plan to perform and get a result that will help make the rest of the tournament good for us.”