PREVIEW-Soccer-Long World Cup qualifying road starts in Samoa

APIA, Samoa, Aug 23 (Reuters) - The qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup finals starts on Saturday, little over 1000 days away from the final in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Nine countries in the Oceania confederation set out on the long road in Apia, Samoa, where the football tournament at The South Pacific Games serves as the first step in the qualifying campaign.

Two matches will kick off simultaneously on Saturday on adjoining fields in the Samoan capital, marking the start of a worldwide qualifying campaign that is only set to be completed by November 2009.

The top three finishers at the South Pacific Games advance to the next stage of the Oceania qualifiers in October, where they are joined in a group competition by New Zealand.

The Solomon Islands, who are favourites for the gold medal, begin against American Samoa, who hold the record for the heaviest loss in World Cup qualifying history, hammered 31-0 by Australia in 2001.

At the same time French territories New Caledonia and Tahiti meet in a derby match.

Also participating in the tournament are the Cook Islands, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu along with Tuvalu, who are the first non-FIFA members to take part in World Cup qualifiers.

The 10 participants are divided into two groups and play in a league competition through to the semi-finals on Sept. 5 and the final, and third place playoff match, on Sept. 7.

The Solomon Islands, who at 161 are the highest world ranked side in the competition, have played a series of warm-up games in Australia to prepare. America Samoa, in 199th spot, are the lowest-ranked and lost 11-0 to Papua New Guinea in their last international more than three years ago.

Their English coach David Brand says they will seek to restrict the number of goals they concede. “Being as competitive as possible and searching for the first ever point in a World Cup qualifier as I am sure we have never gained one is our aim. A goal would be nice as well,” he said.

New Caledonia have also prepared in Australia while Fiji have named three players who play for clubs in New Zealand in their squad.

Vanuatu, who beat New Zealand in the last World Cup qualifiers, and hosts Samoa will also be among the major contenders. Samoa’s side is captained by Chris Cahill, brother of the Everton and Australian international Michael Cahill.