The Cook Islands and football development challenges in Oceania

The Cook Islands and football development challenges in Oceania

In an age of continuous footballing progress, it’s fair to say that the game has a hold in most cultures across the world. Comfortably the world’s most dominant sport, football is unparalleled in many ways, its rich history and various landmarks coveted and admired from afar.

However, despite football’s obvious progress over the last century, it seems now that, with the huge advances made in the European leagues – most notably the Premier League – certain countries and continents are gearing away from the others at frightening speed. In some areas of the globe, football is an incredibly developed and modern sport, played professionally and revered, while in others it’s revered in equal measure but the facilities and opportunities simply aren’t there. One such area is Oceania.

It’s no secret that football is a dominant part of Oceanian culture, taking into account the popularity of rugby at the same time. The continent, which plays host to 36 million people, comprises 14 countries, the largest and best recognised being Australia and New Zealand. Technically, there ought to be a solid league on the continent but, following Australia’s decision to join the Asian Football Confederation, Oceania’s only real footballing output is Wellington Phoenix, the New Zealand side who compete in the A-League.

It could be argued that young, Oceanian footballers are being left without a legitimate route into professional football due to the lack of competitive football on the continent, and it may be having a detrimental effect on the game’s progress. However, the likes of Tahiti and New Caledonia have benefited hugely from support from the French Football Federation, even allowing club sides from both countries to compete in the French National Up. However, these opportunities are few and far between, and most of Oceania’s football elite find themselves playing in New Zealand.

This particular issue struck Drew Sherman, the former coach and manager of the Cook Islands national football team. A talented footballer in his time, Sherman worked with Southampton’s academy prior to joining Aldershot Town as the youngest academy manager in the Football League. He later became manager of the Cooks, seeing the World Cup qualifiers as a major opportunity for himself to develop as a coach.

The Welshman was surprised to find that many Cook Islanders were playing for New Zealand in their youth setup, as opposed to representing their native island nation: “There are roughly 90,000 Cook Islands-eligible players based outside of the islands, but finding them is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Sherman told These Football Times. “One major issue we also faced was the fact that any eligible Cook Islander due to passport and the countries governance by New Zealand is also eligible for New Zealand.”

This particular loophole has led to countless prospective Cook internationals opting to represent the All Whites, most notably Carlisle United goalkeeper Max Crocombe, who had been capped by New Zealand by the time of Drew Sherman’s arrival on the islands. Ironically, due to a lack of goalkeepers on the island, Sherman was forced to play a centre-back in goal throughout his tenure.

It does cause a certain problem, because if this practice continues, it’s hard to see many potentially professional Cook islanders actually ending up representing their country.

The Cooks are a small collection of islands and atolls, spanning 240 kilometres in the Pacific Ocean, and host to a largely Maori population of approximately 14,000 inhabitants. Not noted for their football pedigree, when Sherman arrived in early 2015, the islands were placed second-bottom of the FIFA world rankings, only above newest member Bhutan. The Cook Islands national football side were in poor shape, having finished last in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group. However, the more outstanding fact was that they had never once recorded a competitive victory, a problem that he immediately aimed to tackle.

“I was, at first, pleasantly surprised with the standard of facilities in the islands: we had a designated home of football and well-maintained pitches, paid for by FIFA’s Goal project,” Sherman says. “However, upon meeting the staff at the football association, it was clear that there was a real lack of awareness of what developing football should look like.”

This proved a problem over the next few weeks, as Sherman rapidly attempted to form a decent national team in time for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers: “For the first training session, eight domestic-based players turned up; five of these had very good technical ability, although it was clear that they’d never really been properly coached,” he recalls, before adding, “[and] fitness levels were varied to say the least within the group.”

Despite the challenges lurking ominously ahead of them, the Cook Islands achieved their greatest ever World Cup qualifying campaign under Sherman.

Playing in the first round of the OFC’s round-robin qualification structure, the islanders found themselves up against hosts Tonga in their first match, and won by a stupendous margin of 3-0, with Taylor Saghabi becoming the first Cook Islander to score a hat-trick.

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American Samoa

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Their impressive showing was followed up by another strong performance against group favourites Samoa, as Sherman’s men retained a 1-0 win against all the odds. With their chances of winning the group and entering Round 2 now looking strong, Cook Islands were beaten 2-0 by American Samoa – both goals coming from direct free-kicks – and despite landing the same amount of points as their rivals, the Samoans qualified with a higher goal difference.

Sherman is quick to stress that while his team were capable of progressing, they were undone by their lack of a proper goalkeeper: “We didn’t concede from open play, only from set-pieces, largely due to the fact that we had a centre-back in goal.”

Despite their failure to qualify, Sherman and his team succeeded in doing one thin, for sure: changing the world’s perception of the Cook Islands’ pedigree. During Sherman’s tenure, they rose an incredible 41 places in the FIFA World Rankings to 166th; their highest position of all time, as well as rising to fourth place in the OFC Rankings, only behind the considerably more populous New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia.

But what does the future hold for the Cook Islands football scene and their national team? Drew Sherman recently departed as manager and has since returned to the UK but, as we have seen in Guam, the legacy of managers such as Gary White can be emulated and can have massively positive effects on football communities like these.

Sherman has mixed feeling when discussing the future of football on the Cooks, and is unsure as to what kind of future beckons for the islands: “Given the plans put in place and the small group of genuine good football people that are involved in the game, if they can maintain the recruitment and talent ID network and also maintain the player and coach development pathways implemented, there’s no reason as to why the Cooks couldn’t close the gap on larger Oceanian nations.

“However, given the leadership structure and the governance issues that face football on the islands it’s very difficult to see whether a long-term approach will be taken if it’s in conflict with the self-interest of people in the upper echelons of the game there.

“Unfortunately many of the people passionate about developing the game don’t have the power required to ensure progress, and many of the people with the final say on the governance of the game don’t have the knowledge as to how they’ll ensure things progress. I fear this is a common problem across not only the Cook Islands but Oceanian nations and FIFA in general.”

The issue of a lack of competition on the islands, in general, often worries Sherman. The issue is that if there isn’t a higher standard of football available to young, talented Cook Islanders, their progress as footballers could be stifled as they settle into the routine of a Cook Islands domestic player, as opposed to seeking to progress further in the footballing world.

“Ultimately, the island players have to be good enough. This is where things become difficult. A player development pathway that helped identify and train the best players from Oceanian nations – perhaps linked to an A-League club or even allowing easier movement for A-league clubs to bring in the best islanders and train them within their academy structures – would enormously benefit the islands.

“It’s very hard to provide the appropriate challenge for the most talented 14-year-old in a place like the Cook Islands when he can compete and look like the best player in the senior domestic league or even the national side. This isolated approach means that often players don’t fulfil potential, even if you have top coaches as these players need to train and play with the best that they can.”

If a pathway for Cook Islanders – and Oceanian footballers in general –  into the A-League was created, it goes without saying that the standard of international football in Oceania could improve drastically. The fact that Roy Krishna of Fiji stands out as one of the continent’s most decorated footballers of late suggests that there is a problem within OFC that needs rectifying quickly.

That’s not to say that Oceania could miraculously be transformed into a global football hotspot but engaging in real football development could spell a new age for the game, as well as transforming the hopes and dreams of Oceanian youngsters, aiming for something better than amateur football on their home island.

What the Cook Islands achieved recently was incredible, but why can’t it get better?

By Tomos Knox. Follow @TomosKnox

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