Samoa football champs battling odds to play in Champions League

Samoa's top club side will play all its ties in the Oceania Champions League with a much-changed side.

Lupe Ole Soaga qualified for the region's premier football club tournament, being held in Vanuatu, from a qualifying event held in Apia, Samoa in February.

But up to 12 players from that series will miss the finals due to registration rules.

Team manager Lai Tautiaga explained why.

"There are quite a few issues which surfaced this year. And it's our first time to be informed of such regulations. But we have players who we thought that the qualifying round was sufficient for them to attend the finals; however, it was a different story.

"And also our federation has put forward our transfer window. So the majority of our players had to transfer to different clubs.

"So 12 players from the qualifying tournament left because of that reason."

Some of those players were from New Zealand, such as Jamie Mason and Harrison Bolton-Roberts, and Englishman Jared Cunniff who has returned to North Shore United in Auckland.

A spokesperson for the Oceania Football Confederation told RNZ Pacific that "because those players returned to New Zealand and joined other clubs here, they effectively transferred and the deadline to register players for the Champions League was February 8th, so those players became ineligible to compete in Vanuatu".

Tautiaga said the confidence boost from three massive wins will be crucial when they play teams from Auckland, Fiji and Solomon Islands in their group in Luganville.

"We're trying to continue on with where we left off with from the qualifying round, even though we have had some issues with our player selection. But we have the faith and trust in the squad that we have."

They are boosted by the return of striker Vito Laloata, who has played for Hekari United in Papua New Guinea, and missed the qualifying campaign in Apia.

Lupe Ole Soaga breezed through the qualifiers with wins over Ilaoa & To'omata of American Samoa by 13-0, Tonga's Veitongo FC by 9-0, and won what was effectively a shoot-out against Tupapa Maraerenga FC of the Cook Islands by 7-1.

'Up for the challenge'

Tautiaga said that, despite the loss of several players, Lupe are up for the challenge and won't be making up the numbers.

"Like, we're not new to this tournament. We have a fair idea of the complexity and the intensity of the tournament. So, we are coming prepared for all of our opponents. And we always look forward to this challenge.

"We've got some new players who haven't played a single match in the Champions League, not even qualifying. So they will be the ones who will go through a baptism of fire.

"But we don't see that as a weakness for our team. We have faith in the performances.

"We're not going to bring over a team that's going to make up the numbers in this tournament."

Samoa is one of several countries in the Pacific where rugby and rugby league are the main sports. Last year Toa Samoa made the final of the men's Rugby World Cup in England, sparking jubilation in Samoa and beyond.

Football therefore has to compete with a smaller pool of available talent.


Lai Tautiaga said they are trying to create pathways for their best and young players to get opportunities in other Pacific countries.

"I guess what we've seen in our country, even though it's a rugby and rugby league country, but we feel that we need to have a transition for our players, or some transitional opportunity for our players.

"Because we've tried so hard to develop our own players, we always try and get opportunities and make contacts with clubs in New Zealand as well as in Papua New Guinea.

"We see that if such opportunities open up for the players, football will be a much more competitive sport. As we've seen with the rugby sevens, one of the stars of the national side (Paulo Scanlan) used to be our star striker.

The ability for players to play overseas may take some time, but Tautiaga believes the sport is on the rise in Samoa.

"Actually, from my point of view, and with what we have hands-on with our development, we see that football is coming up.

"In Samoa we play for the love of sport, but we don't have any professional players who are remunerated."

In 2020, Lupe Ole Soaga became the first Samoan team to win an Oceania Champions League group stage match, defeating Fiji's Ba FC 4-3, in Tahiti.

The winner of the 2023 Champions League is guaranteed a place in the Club World Cup being held later this year.

Lupe Ole Soaga SC fixtures (Luganville) - kick-off times Vanuatu local

Sunday 14 May: v Suva FC, KO 3pm

Wednesday 17 May : v Solomon Warriors, KO 12pm

Saturday 20 May: v Auckland City FC, KO 12pm

Lupe players celebrate another goal in the Oceania Champions League qualifying tournament in February Photo: OFC