Huge hearts and big ambitions kick-off Oceania’s journey

Oceania qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ is just a tiny way through its process for the continent’s 11 Member Associations.

But already three of the smallest nation’s in world football have seen their dreams ended, while for the remainder the coming year provides an opportunity to dream big about the prospects for glory. The likes of continental champions Tahiti and 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa participants New Zealand are turning their attention to their mid-year matches, but for now the spotlight has been elsewhere.

September witnessed four Polynesian nations – American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga – meet in Stage 1 of Russia 2018 qualifying. Six matches in four days meant there was little margin for error.

The small island nation of Tonga provided a typically warm Polynesian welcome. On the field, things were not quite so hospitable as four teams - all comprised entirely of amateurs - did battle for a single ticket to the next stage.

Samoa may have ultimately came out on top, just as they historically have done, but times are changing in Oceania’s eastern region. It came down to the last match of the tournament four years ago. This time it came down to the last kick of the competition.

Remarkably, three teams – American Samoa, Cook Islands and Samoa – all ended on six points with the latter advancing by a single goal. Along the way history was made even for those teams that failed to progress. Football is not always about trophies and headline-making success. Sometimes the glory is helping create a historical marker.

Most memorable match 
American Samoa 2-0 Cook Islands 
The tree-lined Loto-Tonga Soka Centre might have provided a humble stage, but it is hard to imagine a more thrilling World Cup scenario. Three teams could conceivably advance as American Samoa and Cook Islands lined up for their respective national anthems. The latter needed just a draw, while the former needed to win by three. Any other result would see Samoa progress. American Samoa scored twice early in a tense second half changing the complexion of the entire competition. They even had a one-on-one in the dying seconds of injury time, but the chance to achieve historic breakthrough qualification went begging. Such were the fine margins in which this competition was played.

Surprise package 
Outside the CONCACAF region, Cook Islands are the smallest nation in world football. Yet with just 15,000 inhabitants to call upon, Cook Islands managed to not only win their first World Cup match against a FIFA Member Association, but they repeated the feat within 48 hours.

Player to watch 
When modest Samoa take on Oceania’s kingfishers next year, their leader - in every sense - will be veteran forward Desmond Faaiuaso. The intensely combative and powerfully-built Faaiuaso has seemingly lost little of the speed first witnessed in his maiden World Cup campaign way back in 2001 as a 17-year-old. Easily the nation’s most well-known footballer, Faaiuaso will bring much-needed experience as Samoa face up to a tough task.

The stat 
3 – Many players would be happy with three World Cup goals. American Samoa skipper Ramin Ott has done just that but over three different campaigns. And if that statistic is not remarkable enough, American Samoa’s all-time World Cup goal tally before this year was just five.

What they said 
“That (final day) loss broke me. It was the fact that we knew we just needed a draw. I haven’t even watched the highlights. It was that heartbreaking.” Cook Islands forward Taylor Saghabi whose four goals briefly made the self-employed concreter the highest goalscorer in global World Cup qualifying.

What’s next 
Samoa will line up alongside Tahiti, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea in Stage 2, with New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu in the other group. The tournament will be held in Papua New Guinea between 28 May – 11 June. The top six will advance to the third stage, to be played during 2017, with the overall winner to feature in an intercontinental play-off against a South American opponent in November 2017.