The Oceania Nations Cup kicks off in the Solomon Islands tomorrow. Michael Brown of APNZ puts together a beginners' guide to the tournament and what it means for New Zealand's chances of qualifying for consecutive World Cups.
What is it?
The Oceania Nations Cup is an eight-team tournament being played in the Solomon Islands that will decide which four teams progress to the next phase of World Cup qualification. After the conclusion of the tournament, the semifinalists will play each other home and away before March 2013 to find Oceania's winner, who will then take on the fourth-best side from Concacaf (North and Central America) for a place at the 2014 World Cup.
The winner of the Nations Cup will also qualify for next year's Confederations Cup in Brazil, and this is the major prize for the All Whites because they will be among the top-four teams - something catastrophic will have happened if they're not.
A short history lesson
The Oceania Nations Cup was first played for in 1973 (it was called the Oceania Cup then) and was won by hosts New Zealand. Australia held it for extended periods until they scarpered from Oceania in 2006 to join Asia but there were notable exceptions in 1998 and 2002 when the All Whites triumphed 1-0 and qualified for the 1999 and 2003 Confederations Cups. New Zealand won the last instalment in 2008, when the best four teams in Oceania played each other home and away.
How does it work?
The Solomon Islands will be joined by New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea in one pool and Tahiti, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Samoa will square off in the other. Group games will be played in a round robin format, with the top two sides from each pool moving through to the semifinals. The games will come rapidly, with the winner of the tournament expected to play five games in 10 days (it will be nine days in New Zealand's case should they reach the final), meaning squad depth is important. All 16 games will be played on Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara.
Will New Zealand win?
They should. They are by far the biggest and most successful footballing nation at the tournament and come into it on the back of impressive recent results against Honduras (1-0) and El Salvador (2-2). They also have a powerful (by Oceania standards) lineup made up mostly of fulltime professionals who ply their trade throughout the world.
That doesn't mean it will be easy. The island nations traditionally perform poorly when playing in New Zealand but they are a different proposition in more familiar surrounds.
The Solomons will be a hostile environment - the heat, humidity, mosquitoes, local fans, the pitch - and island teams will look to make it as difficult as possible for the favourites. Any one of the sides apart from Samoa, the lightweights of the competition, have legitimate claims on a top-four finish but the Solomon Islands could prove tricky on their home track and New Caledonia won last year's Pacific Games.
Have New Zealand got their best team?
Pretty much. All Whites' coach Ricki Herbert has picked a strong squad, underlining the importance of the tournament. Captain Ryan Nelsen (Tottenham Hotspur) was originally selected but pulled out with an ankle injury and Winston Reid (West Ham) and Dan Keat (LA Galaxy) were late withdrawals.
The squad has a youthful look about it and is led by 22-year-old Tommy Smith, who last week became the youngest player to captain New Zealand. There are another 11 players aged under 25 but many, including Chris Wood, Jeremy Brockie, Kosta Barbrouses and Marco Rojas are established internationals. Ivan Vicelich is the old man of the team at 35 and he will have a few others like Shane Smeltz, Chris Killen, Rory Fallon and Mark Paston who can remember when football boots were black.