Amid the chaos that is sport during the COVID-19 pandemic, news emerged in late March that the nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati would soon be participating as full members of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), the FIFA confederation which oversees football in the nations of Oceania.
The news marked the potential end of both nations’ involvement in Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA). Unlike many members of CONIFA, Tuvalu and Kiribati are not nations or ethnic groups in conflict. There is no question that the two countries, whose combined population is roughly 133,500, exist. Both countries were acknowledged as sovereign in the late-1970s after spending close to a century under British rule. Kiribati became a full member of the United Nations in 1999, while Tuvalu followed in 2000.
Both national teams have been active during their CONIFA memberships, with Kiribati qualifying for the 2018 World Football Cup before withdrawing due to financial difficulties. Tuvalu would take their place.
In a statement released shortly after the withdrawal, Kiribati Islands Football Association President Ioteba Redfern noted, “We are truly disappointed not to be competing at the 2018 Paddy Power World Football cup due to financial constraints, we wish our Pacific neighbours Tuvalu all the best in their journey to London.” Tuvalu then went on to participated in the group stage with Padania, Székely Land and Matabeleland. Despite leaving with no points, the tournament marked a historic step in Tuvalu’s international standing.
It would appear, however, that those days are over. Recent announcements suggest that, upon the resuming of the game, both nations will be participating alongside the likes of New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti and Papua New Guinea on the international stage.
Tuvalu Islands Football Association (TIFA) President Soseala Tinilau posted a letter on 14 March on a popular Facebook page titled ‘Tuvaluan From Within’, stating that progress was being made to bring Tuvalu to the OFC. The TIFA president also explained some of the struggles the association had faced in earning recognition.
“There are only two major requirements we can’t currently meet,” Tinilau said. “FIFA demands that countries have a stadium with a 3,000-person capacity and a lot of hotels in case the country hosts tournaments. I made my case that we should use Fiji as the home ground for Tuvalu. FIFA already has a precedent for that. I think Gibraltar – that’s a country that doesn’t have a stadium but they are a FIFA member and they play based in Spain. The Fiji Football Association is willing to host us.”
It should be noted that while Tinilau’s plan is rooted in previous actions in Europe, it was Portugal that gave Gibraltar a temporary home. Gibraltar also played at a domestic location, the Lathbury Barracks, prior to the redevelopment of Victoria Stadium as their official home. Tuvalu matches Gibraltar’s problem and short-term solution, though whether they would then also be able to match their eventual construction of a stadium is unclear.
Requests for further explanation on behalf of the Kiribati Island Football Federation planned to make up for OFC’s rules in comparison to Tuvalu were not responded to. Tinilau continued that, with help from former TIFA president Paulson Panapa, progress had been made in reconnecting with the OFC. Tinilau’s post stated that the OFC had agreed to work with associate members like Tuvalu and Kiribati, provide funding to said associate members, and to allow them to take part in OFC tournaments.
“[The] OFC has also agreed to send a team to do a scoping exercise in Tuvalu to help us become OFC and FIFA members,” Tinilau continued. “We’re crossing our fingers that we’ll be able to achieve these goals soon and get more funds so that we can advance our football activities in Tuvalu.”
Describing the two nations’ recognition by the OFC as “good news” in their initial report, CONIFA appear to be treating the loss of its two members as a positive. Indeed, the organization instead sees it as the best result and a sign that they can provide countries like Tuvalu or Kiribati with a platform to fight for this level of acceptance.
The absence of Tuvalu and Kiribati would leave CONIFA with two members in Oceania, Mariya and Hawaii. This would make Oceania tied with North America and South America as the CONIFA region with the least members, as of 2020. While Mariya has managed some notable results, qualifying for the now postponed 2020 World Football Cup, Hawaii’s side is in its early days and has yet to partake in any tournaments or qualifiers.
Mariya was set to face Kernow, Matabeleland and Mapuche in the group stage of the most recent World Football Cup and would now find itself the dominant name in the Oceania region as far as CONIFA is concerned.
The principle benefit to returning to the fold of OFC activity is the ability to compete in OFC competitions. In addition to the OFC’s role in global competitions like the FIFA World Cup and Olympics, Oceania members partake in a range of tournaments within the region. These include the Champions League, which pits the best clubs from OFC members against one another, and the Nations Cup, the Copa América and Euro equivalent for national teams, held on a four-year cycle.
The 2020 OFC Nations Cup was cancelled following the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. It remains unclear if the tournament will find a home later in 2020, another date in 2021, or perhaps never take place at all.
In addition to participation, full OFC membership would grant both Tuvalu and Kiribati funding for 2020 in the total of 30,000 NZD, equivalent to 18,000 USD or 16,000 euros, to be used for footballing activity.
In a statement to Football in Oceania, OFC General Secretary Franck Castillo added that the membership shift would see the OFC’s Just Play program. According to the OFC, the program is supported by the governments and football federations of both New Zealand and Australia, along with the UEFA Foundation for Children, receiving funding from the above and UNICEF.
The OFC describes the role of Just Play as, “A sport for social development programme designed to target children aged 6-12 years. Through the integration of social messages into all sessions and activities, children learn to develop healthy lifestyle habits, include persons with disabilities, support and encourage gender equality and increase their school and community engagement.”
With two new faces joining the competitive ranks of the OFC, questions are raised on how competitive Kiribati and Tuvalu would be in the OFC’s various tournaments. It should be noted that the OFC is an extremely one-sided region in terms of trophies won. Following Australia’s move to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), New Zealand emerged as the powerhouse of the OFC, having won three of the seven iterations of the cup up until that point. The other four were won by Australia.
Following Australia’s departure in 2006, New Zealand has won the OFC Nations Cup twice, while Tahiti went all the way in 2012 to mark a rare change of pace in the tournament’s history.
Both Kiribati and Tuvalu would likely be far from favourites to challenge for titles in their initial years in the OFC, facing countries with far stronger ties to professional hubs of the game while they still work to build their way up. While the move to the OFC is a moment of excitement, it is likely it will come with a period of very difficult results.
That being said, any team can do anything. Ninety minutes define a team’s quality, not their potential stats on a video game. With a shot at playing the rest of the OFC, only time would tell what either new nation could do against the established names of Oceania.fo
The move to the OFC is not without its issues. There are concerns amongst some that the increase in members without a high level of competitive quality may push New Zealand out of the OFC, causing the OFC powerhouse to follow Australia to the AFC.
Ola Bjerkevoll, the mind behind Football in Oceania, notes that New Zealand would have several motives for leaving, including an improvement to their playing calendar. “As it is, the senior national teams of the OFC play a few times every four years or so with the OFC Nations Cup and World Cup qualifiers,” Bjerkevoll explains. “The Asian confederation has regional championships as well as the main continental tournaments. Sure, New Zealand have played friendlies against strong opposition in between the Nations Cup stints, but going to AFC would likely mean more tournament matches, and more matches were they get tested in said tournaments.”
There is another, perhaps more obvious, reason that New Zealand would ponder a move to the larger market of the AFC. “Another reason to consider here is the oldest one: money,” Bjerkevoll continues. “OFC is the smallest and, it’s fair to assume, poorest continental governing body in FIFA. Without knowing the finances of AFC, it would still be a good bet at saying that New Zealand would get more money for things like development of grassroots and such at the AFC.”
Such a move would leave the OFC without a notable football power, with New Zealand the only member regularly viewed as having a chance to win the intercontinental playoff required for OFC nations to make the World Cup. Bjerkevoll noted that the idea of New Zealand leaving the OFC had been raised before during other periods of change, leaving some room for doubt that this new development would lead to any action.
“My own personal feeling is that it won’t happen,” Bjerkevoll explains. “The main reason for that, I think, is the revamped World Cup. It all but secures New Zealand a spot at the World Cup, when Oceania gets one guaranteed place in the competition proper from 2026. New Zealand will win the OFC qualifiers 99 times out of a hundred. The promise of a date with the big boys every four years should be enough to negate any negative sides by playing lesser Oceania sides to get there.”
Covid-19 may have postponed the 2020 events which could have handed Tuvalu and Kiribati their debuts, but having survived lifetimes of social and economic struggles in and outside of football, both seem set to determine their own destiny on the pitch.
Only time will tell how Tuvalu and Kiribati’s improved role in the OFC may affect either country’s football, or what role the two would play as competitors against the region’s established powers, but the ascension of two nations to the top levels of the beautiful game is sure to prove an important moment in the tale of Oceanian football.
By Dominic José Bisogno @DJBisogno
Photo credit: Dominic Stevenson @hatscarfshirt