This week we look at the Oceania Confederation ahead of the 2018 Oceania Football Confederation's Nations Cup, which will be held from November 18 thru December 1 in New Caledonia, which doubles as the Confederation's 2019 Women's World Cup Qualifiers, with one team advancing to France. We focus on a recent coaching addition for New Zealand, a high school diaspora from Washington State who is leading Fiji's front line, and Papua New Guinea as odds-on favourites to again make the Final versus the Kiwis, and we set the stage for the other 5 finalists.
2018 OFC NATIONS CUP PREVIEW
Eight teams vie for the one automatic berth to the 2019 Women's World Cup from Oceania during the 2018 OFC Women's Nations Cup, the 11th edition, from November 18-December 1 in New Caledonia. Since Australia left the confederation for the Asian Football Confederation on January 1, 2006, New Zealand has won the confederation championship and the sole WWC berth in 2007, 2011 and 2015. Papua New Guinea was runners-up each time and is favored to make the final game again this year. New Zealand also won the tournament title in 1983 (before FIFA established the Women's World Cup) and in 1991 to qualify for the first official FIFA World tournament, surprisingly winning the round robin regional finals over Australia and PNG. Australia won titles in 1994, 1998 and 2003, while Chinese Taipei did the same in 1986 and 1989.
Group A has host New Caledonia, group favorites Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tahiti.
New Zealand is in Group B with the Cook Islands, Fiji and Tonga, with Fiji viewed as the Football Ferns chief competition in the group stage, and likely to make the semifinals as group runners-up. Dan Lauletta in Equalizer Soccer has pointed out that the Football Ferns "have won all 11 of their Oceania Football Championship matches by a combined score of 101-1 (not a typo.) [New Zealand is] ranked 20th in the world, safely ahead of Fiji at No. 81. The other six teams are not ranked at all, which is a product on inactivity."
New Zealand—Late Coaching Change Ramps Up Hopes
New Zealand would, at face value, seem to be the overwhelming favorites to advance to France based off of past history, but it has been a difficult year for the Football Ferns, particularly on the administration and coaching side. We reported earlier this year that Austrian coach Andreas Herat was released from his position as head coach after 14 months. The national team's players had make repeated complaints of bullying and intimidation by Herat; in the independent investigation report conducted on behalf of the federation, all but one of 12 players interviewed said that they would give up their international careers (despite the fact that they love playing for their country) rather than play again for Herat, while Federation officials were also accused of trying to get the players to suppress their complaints. Another finding of the report was that the pathways to national positions for female football coaches in the country were not well defined. In an effort to turn the ship around in a very short period of time, the federation has tapped Scottish native Tom Sermanni to lead the team through the qualifiers and hopefully to France next summer. Sermanni is the polar opposite of the brusque and Stalin-like Herat. This reporter has known Tom Sermanni since the 2007 Women's World Cup in China and has had long discussions with him over the years; I have always found him to be reasoned, insightful and wonderfully personable to deal with. He is a player's coach and is just what the Football Ferns need at this time.
Sermanni also coached Australia at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups and was a key force in establishing the now 11-year-old Westfield W-League in 2008/09; he built the basis of the Australian national team this is now one of the best squads in the World and one of the favorites to win the World Cup next summer. He coached the Americans for, ironically 14 months in 2013 and 2014, being relieved of the position himself ostensively because of losing three games in the Spring Friendly Algarve Cup Tournament in Portugal, but also because of some well-documented player unrest by veterans, who felt that his focus on developing youth players—part of his mandate by U.S. Soccer when he was hired—was putting their 2015 tournament playing time hopes at risk (most notably Abby Wambach). Sermanni was an assistant coach to John Herdman in Canada for the 2015 tournament and coached the Orlando Pride the past three seasons in the NWSL, advancing to the playoff semifinals in 2017.
Sermanni's corollary to Herdman is significant as the Newcastle native coached New Zealand at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups before going to Canada. They had one tie in six WWC games, a 2-2 come from behind effort against Mexico in 2011 with two injury-time goals, after close 2-1 losses against eventual winner Japan and England. Herdman once told this reporter that he felt that those two late goals against Mexico put him on the consideration list for the vacant Canada job, which he eventually won. Could the New Zealand job lead to another high profile position for the 64-year-old Sermanni or could he stay on longer term and build the infrastructure for the New Zealand side to develop as he did in Australia? New Zealand earned two ties in Canada in 2015 but still has not made it out of the first round in their four Women's World Cup appearances, though they did make the Quarterfinals in the 2012 London Olympics.
The squad that Sermanni will take to New Caledonia includes many veterans, including Erin Nayler (who spent time with Sky Blue FC in the NWSL and Olympic Lyon in France without seeing any game action and is now with Bordeaux in France), Ria Percival (now playing with Chelsea after years in Germany, who began her professional career with FC Indiana as an 18-year-old—this reporter interviewed her before her first club game as a professional in the States) and Ali Riley (the American-New Zealander who has been playing in Sweden for years and is also now at Chelsea). Sarah Gregorius leads the New Zealand Women's Football League's fourth place Capital Football Federation side with 7 goals and could have a breakout tournament. The 31-year-old Gregorius has played professionally in England (Liverpool), Germany and Japan and could still attract an overseas club interested in an experienced striker with two World Cups and two Olympics on her resume. Three players on Sermanni's roster are currently based in England, three play in the NWSL, two are in Germany, with one each in France, Iceland and Sweden, while 11 are based at home:
New Zealand's 2018 OFC Women's Nations Cup Squad
Elizabeth Anton (Auckland Football)
CJ Bott (Vittsjo GIK—Sweden)
Katie Bowen (Utah Royals—NWSL)
Victoria Esson (Canterbury United Pride)
Anna Green (Capital Football)
Sarah Gregorius (Capital Football)
Betsy Hassett (KR Reykjavik—Iceland)
Grace Jale (Auckland Football)
Annalie Longo (Canterbury United Pride)
Meikayla Moore (MSV Duisburg—Germany)
Sarah Morton (Auckland Football)
Erin Nayler (Girondins Bordeaux—France)
Nadia Olla (Auckland Football)
Ria Percival (West Ham United—England)
Ali Riley (Chelsea FC—England)
Emma Rolston (MSV Duisburg—Germany)
Katie Rood (Bristol City—England)
Paige Satchell (Auckland Football)
Stephanie Skilton (Auckland Football)
Malia Steinmetz (Northern Lights)
Rebekah Stott (Sky Blue FC—NWSL/Melbourne City—Australia)
Rosie White (Chicago Red Stars—NWSL)
A notable absentee is Abby Ercig, who has captained the team in the past, and is the reigning NWSL Defender of the Year for the champion North Carolina Courage. She retired in 2017 and again earlier this year, but hopefully will be enticed back by Sermanni for 2019. New Zealand needs a strong defense for the WWC if they qualify and she is a world class defender.
Fiji is hoping for goals from a Washington State high schooler
Fiji won the OFC Nations Cup Qualifying Round earlier this year at home, defeating American Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Trina Davis, a 17-year-old high school student from Marysville, Washington (a northern suburb of Seattle), scored a goal and had an assist in the key final match over American Samoa—she scored four goals to win the tournament's Golden Boot award, including a hat trick in the 5-1 win over Vanuatu. The Grambling State University recruit for the 2019 season went to Fiji for only the third time ever this summer and first time since 2011 after a federation invite—she was born in the States and qualifies to play for Fiji through her mother, who was born there. Davis told the Everett Herald that she thought that she was going to play with the U-17's and not the full national team this summer: "I was there until the end of the tournament. There was no junk food, our phones were taken away. … When we got rooms, one of the girls said, 'Why did you post (on social media) about being on the U-17 team? This is the Fiji Women's National Team.'" If Fiji should upset the odds and make the World Cup, Davis would miss her high school graduation. She said: "I've been thinking about it a lot. I would leave in June and miss my graduation. I talked to my (school) counselors, and they said not many people miss their graduation to go to a World Cup. They told me to look at the positives."
Fiji hosted fellow finalists Samoa in two friendlies last month and won by 2-0 and 5-0 scores, with Jotivini Tabua tallying twice and Fiji U-19 stars Luisa Tamanitoakula and Cema Nasau scoring a goal each in the second game.
A brief look at the other 6 OFC Nations Cup Finals teams:
Samoa has a newly appointed coach for the tournament in Nicola Demaine, a former OFC Women's Football Development Officer who was previously based in New Zealand and went to school at the University of Sunderland. Demaine used the two games in Fiji as a key part of her preparation process for the side ahead of the New Caledonia finals: "We will be in Fiji for a week and will be playing with the Fiji national women's team, which is part of a strategy to see where are at, and use it as a marker to know what we need to do between now and the Nations Cup, to make sure we are ready for the first match against PNG," About her Group A foes, Demaine said: "It's a tough group where they've got the gold medalists from the Pacific Games PNG, then there are the runner-ups the New Caledonians so those will be tough, experienced sides. Papua New Guinea, they were in the U-20 World Cup in 2016 too."
Tahiti, also in Group A, is coached by Stephanie Spielmann, who had been in charge of the team for 2 years. She went to school in Strasburg in France and coached with FC Vendenheim Women in the Alsace region of France in both the first and second division. She also won a FIFA Coach Mentorship Program position in Switzerland this year. Female coaches from all over the world gathered in Zurich for the two-day workshop last month, where they were paired with top names in women's football, allowing them to benefit from invaluable first-hand advice, gain new ideas and share best practices. She was paired up with Ives Serneels, Belgium Women's National Team Head Coach (2011-present), during the sessions.
Papua New Guinea hosted the 2016 U-20 Women's World Cup and their side was coached by American head coach Lisa Cole, who is now an assistant coach with Sky Blue FC in the U.S. They also won the most recent Pacific Games in 2015, the fourth edition, and are four time champions. The country has recently restructured its women's league, which had been in mothballs for some time. Federation competition manager Simon Koima said: "There has been great interest among the women here as they don't want to just watch men playing football." The competition will feature four regional teams; Southern, Momase, Highlands and New Guinea Island. The two highest-placed teams will progress to the one-off Grand Final on 4 November. Koima explained: "The purpose of reviving the women's league is to review and identify the preferred national women's competitions structure that best serves the long-term interest of women's football in Papua New Guinea."
PNG women's coach Peter Gunembahas an entirely home-based squad, with players from Lae, Madang, Kimbe, Simbu, Goroka and Port Moresby. PNG held a week long preparation match in Lae ahead of the trip to New Caledonia. Gunemba explained his strategy: "We will be working on our game plans, and studying our opponents. We have a short time to prepare but I'm confident we'll do well."
The final squad of 21 players bound (all of whom are domestic-based) for New Caledonia include:
Eight players have played internationally for the country before including goalkeeper Faith Kasiray, Yvonne Gabong, Meagen Gunemba, Ramona Padio, Judith Gunemba, Sandra Birum, Marie Kaipu and Margaret Joseph.
Gunemba lost three other first choice players--Yasap Ganu and Zeenah Toropoiwere dropped for passport issues while Lavina Hola was omitted for medical reasons.
Tonga in Group B hopes to build on their recent experience at a global tournament, at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with their futsal squad, an U-18 side The team lost all four games, 9-1 to Thailand, 8-0 to Spain, 7-2 to Bolivia and 7-5 to Trinidad and Tobago, during which Seini Lutu scored a hat trick against the Caribbean side. Hopefully they gained some experience at Tonga's first global tournament for football that will apply outdoors. The side spent a week in Auckland, New Zealand training with the East City Futsal boy's youth team before going to Argentina. The futsal team was officially formed in 2017 to take part in the OFC Youth Futsal Tournament, where Tonga finished runners-up of the girl's division behind New Zealand, and lost their futsal court during Cyclone Gita but eventually overcame the logistics challenge. It is unclear if any of the squad will be part of the side for New Caledonia but pulling points off teams in their group will be another positive for the federation in further developing the women's game in the country.
Tonga Youth Olympic Games Futsal squad
1. Kalolaine TOPUI (GK), 2. Meleseini TUFUI, 3. Mele KAFA, 4. Mele AKOLO, 5. Seini LUTU, 6. Ana POLOVILI, 7. Finehika FINAU, 8. Lositika FEKE, 9. Siunipa TALASINGA, 10.Rhonda FOTU (GK)
Coach: Manu TUALAU (TGA)
New Caledonia (Group A) and the Cook Islands (Group B) have not announced their final rosters as of press time. New Caledonia took a pre-tournament trip to Auckland late last month and will have home support, which could propel them to the semifinals. Cook Islands have probably the least chance to record points off of their three opponents, though they did finish third in the last two editions of the OFC Nations Cup, finishing third over Tonga on goal difference after a 1-1 tie when only four teams participated.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey