The tension is building as kick-off approaches in Group B of the OFC Men’s Nations Cup

Photo credit: OFC Media via Kirk Corrie

The margins should prove razor-thin when Group B gets underway at the 2024 OFC Men’s Nations Cup in Fiji this weekend.

Two of the countries Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Tahiti will advance to the semi-finals in Vanuatu in just over a week, with little to choose between the four countries.

Samoa and Tahiti kick off at 1pm local time on Sunday, while co-hosts Fiji take on Papua New Guinea later that afternoon at 4pm.

Fiji has benefited from an unexpected home advantage, with the group moving from its original venue in Luganville, Vanuatu, to the HFC Bank Stadium in Suva.

Despite the opportunity to play in front of what promises to be a rowdy and partisan home crowd, coach Robert Sherman has not allowed the team’s preparations to be affected by the change of venue.

“I’m sure the fact that we’re playing at home will be something very important. There may be added pressure, but at the end of the day, no matter who you play, the games of the game are the same, so the challenge is there,” Sherman said.

“We’re going to go out there and try to win every game, no matter what. You know, we don’t try to soften the opponent too much. It’s about how we play, so it will be the same message for the players whether you’re at home or away,” he continued.

Fiji head coach Rob Sherman addresses the media ahead of Sunday’s opening match. Photo credit: OFC Media via Kirk Corrie

Fiji’s opponents on Sunday are Papua New Guinea – a team with an impressive track record in both the men’s and women’s OFC Nations Cup. The last time the men’s tournament was held, in Port Moresby in 2016, they reached the final, narrowly losing on penalties to New Zealand.

Assistant coach Sam Gahan says the mood in the camp is extremely positive as they prepare to go one step further, starting with the challenge of Fiji on Sunday.

“The preparations for us were incredible. We had fantastic facilities in Brisbane last week and in that time we were able to get the whole squad together,” he said.

With Sunday’s match likely to be played in front of a predominantly pro-Fiji crowd, Gahan believes there is a positive element in this challenge for Papua New Guinea.

“It’s great when the crowds are behind you, but it’s also exciting to be part of a big crowd and hear the atmosphere that they bring and the joy that that brings and just be a part of it to make.

“So I think we’re excited to be a part of that. We know who they are behind, but hopefully we can give them entertaining football that will get everyone excited,” he said.

Papua New Guinea Assistant Coach Sam Gahan was in a positive mood at the pre-tournament media conference. Photo credit: OFC Media via Kirk Corrie.

The opening match of the day sees the winners of the qualifying tournament Samoa face Tahiti, with Samoa coach Ryan Stewart excited by the prospect of what his young side can achieve, especially having had the rare opportunity to play for an extended period to work with his team.

Samoa defeated Tonga and Cook Islands earlier this year to book their place in this month’s 2024 OFC Men’s Nations Cup.

“We spent ten days in Auckland in the camp and it went very, very well. We also played a few friendlies, against Auckland City and Auckland United, which gave us a chance to work on team form and build partnerships,” he said.

Stewart is aware of the challenge facing his young squad, but recognizes it is the result of his squad’s continued development.

“We qualified for this and now we have to go shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Tahiti, who are a great team to watch, so we have to match them and see where we are. Then we will face Fiji, so we are looking forward to it,” he said.

Samoa’s Ryan Stewart fronted the media ahead of his side’s opening match against Tahiti in Suva. Photo credit: OFC Media via Kirk Corrie.

Samuel Garcia will lead Tahiti, with their historic win in 2012 the only time a team other than New Zealand or Australia has lifted the trophy. Despite some of the squad remaining from that memorable season twelve years ago, Garcia is not letting this influence his approach in 2024.

“This is motivation. 2012 was a long time ago. The team is not the same, the situation is not the same, so we don’t think there is pressure,” Garcia explained.

Tahiti’s AS Pirae had an impressive run to the final of the OFC Men’s Champions League on home turf last month, with part of that team selected for national action. However, Garcia is keen to point out that the other teams in the group will have had similar considerations when selecting their squads.

“Other teams are in a similar situation. Rewa FC (Fiji) was also in the Champions League and that means we had little time to prepare.

“All I can ask from the players is to concentrate and give everything for the first match,” he said.

Tahiti head coach Samuel Garcia hopes his side can emulate the 2012 team that won the OFC Men’s Nations Cup. Photo credit: OFC Media via Kirk Corrie.

With so much at stake and so little room for error, a winning start on Sunday will go a long way in deciding who will extend their campaign and head to Vanuatu later this month.

OFC Nations Cup Men 2024

Group B
Competition day 1
HFC Bank Stadium, Suva

Tahiti vs Samoa, 1pm | WATCH LIVE
Papua New Guinea v Fiji, 4pm | WATCH LIVE