Unranked Tuvalu shocked the footballing world on Tuesday at the Vanuatu 2017 Pacific Mini Games, beating favourites New Caledonia 2-1 in an historic result that could help renew their drive for FIFA membership.
The Tuvalu national football team trains on an airport runway between scheduled flights, as there is no suitable field in the tiny island nation. The lack of facilities and infrastructure are a major barrier to FIFA membership, meaning the Pacific Games and Pacific Mini Games are the only international tournaments in which Tuvalu currently competes.
New Caledonia, who sit at 156 in FIFA’s global standings, are the second-highest ranked team in the Vanuatu 2017 men’s football competition. Solomon Islands (ranked 148), Fiji (178), Vanuatu (185) and Tonga (206) round out the field.
Goals from captain Taufaiva Ionatana in the 15th minute and striker Alopua Petoa in the 69th minute gave Tuvalu an unassailable lead over New Caledonia, who hit back in the 76th minute via Shene Welepane, but Tuvalu hung on for an historic victory.
“I received an email this morning from the Tuvalu Prime Minister to congratulate the football team,” Molotii Iakopo, the president of the Team Tuvalu delegation in Port Vila, told the Vanuatu 2017 Games News Service.
“It was a very happy moment for all of us because we have never defeated New Caledonia before.
“Back home we train and play on the runway. About 30 minutes before a plane lands, there is a siren so we stop and clear the airstrip. But now we’ve planned it well, so we only train on the days when there are no flights coming in. We have a field, but Saturdays are the only time we get the chance to use it.
“Our team has come from training on the runway to actually winning matches, and this is an historic moment for the team, because it has taken us a long time to finally beat New Caledonia.”
Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation located between Hawaii and Australia, is one of the world’s smallest countries with a total land mass of 26 square kilometres. It has a population of around 11,000 and is an isolated bastion of football in a region dominated by the rugby codes.
The Tuvalu Football Association has been dreaming of FIFA membership for three decades, and has renewed their push since joining the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) in 2007.
“We are not a member of FIFA but we are still looking for a way to become a member, because soccer is the main sport on the island,” explained Iakopo.
He said Tuvalu sporting authorities have taken a fresh approach to the organisation of the country’s domestic football league this year, and that they are committed to driving the sport forward and seeking international recognition.
Tuvalu lost their opening match 8-0 to Fiji, but the victory over New Caledonia keeps them in the running for a medal position in the six-team, round-robin tournament.
Their next match is against Solomon Islands, the highest-ranked country in the competition, on Saturday.
Story by Melissa Fare and Joanna Lester
Photos by Rio Rii