Friday, 4 November 2011 9:43 AM
Football Love Affair Continues
Providing smaller Pacific Island nations, like Solomon Islands with the means to develop football - both on and off the pitch - to a desired standard has been one of the over-riding challenges for OFC for many years.
The game has come a long way since the birth of the confederation Charlie Dempsey and others so passionately battled for.
Slowly that vision is becoming a reality. With island nations including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Tahiti joining New Zealand in playing at major FIFA tournaments, the on-field progress is obvious. Off-field the results are not as apparent with internal battles often hindering progress. Many of those problems are simply a matter of logistics.
The Solomon Islands are a ready example.
Administering football in a country of half a million people spread over nearly 1000 islands will never be easy even if football is, generally, played only on the five main islands.
The Solomons are divided into nine provinces of which Guadalcanal - with Honiara as the capital - and Malaita, the spiritual home of football in the country, are the biggest both in area and population. The five main islands have teams in the recently-established, and hugely popular, 10-team national S-League but travel remains a challenge with flights of two hours and even longer ferry trips on match days.
The season, from October to April/May - in the hottest months and cyclone season - is played over 18 home-and-away rounds with the top eight progressing to the play-offs culminating in a grand final. The winner goes on to play in the O-League and with that the chance to progress to FIFA'S Club World Cup.
All games on the main island (which hosts six teams) are presently played at Honiara's Lawson Tama Stadium and attract crowds of 6000-8000 for regular season games and many more at the knockout stage.
Last Saturday's O-League Group B opener between Koloale and Auckland City drew close to 15,000.
The national league, now in its second season, is based on templates used by New Zealand Football and the Singapore FA in establishing their national competitions. Instigating the league was a big call by the Solomon Islands Football Federation (SIFF) but its place in the country's sporting heritage is unquestioned.
There has been a long association with New Zealand football with Waitakere United stalwart Rex Dawkins and Auckland City chairman Ivan Vuksich held in high regard in the Solomons. The on-going recruitment of Solomon Islands players at their clubs is testimony to the feeling of goodwill between club and country.
Emblazoned on the side of a building not far from Lawson Tama is a sign urging "Go Waitakere Go". Further evidence of this nation's support for New Zealand clubs who have given their players a chance to further their careers - on and off the pitch.
Ray Vuksich of Auckland-based construction company Vuksich and Borich is another "friend of the Solomons". His company continues to work closely with long-standing Auckland-based FIFA Development Officer Glenn Turner on projects which aim to improve the country's football facilities.
Vuksich's company has had a long association with OFC and the island nations. Between them they have undertaken four FIFA Goal projects in the Solomons.
The first, about 10 years ago, was the upgrade of the playing surface at Lawson Tama Stadium - a pitch Auckland City head coach Ramon Tribulietx had no hesitation in proclaiming as the best in the islands.
The upgrade of the SIFF offices followed but still appear inadequate for General Secretary Eddie Ngava and his staff of 20 who administer the sport in both Honiara and the far-flung islands.
The third Goal project was the building of the Aligegeo Stadium on Malaita Island - a three-hour boat trip from Honiara to the most passionate soccer fraternity in the country.
The fourth project currently being undertaken is the JFK Stadium in Western Province. This ground will be enclosed and boast a sand-based pitch and will join Lawson Tama Stadium as a venue for future S-League matches on the main island.
The stadium in Gizo is a legacy of former United States President John F Kennedy who spent time in World War II in the island nation.
Ngava and his hard-working staff - of which the disciplinary committee, he says, is the hardest working - oversee 10 provincial associations and international football.
No surprise futsal and beach soccer take centre stage.
The skills required for these small-sided games in confined areas are honed from a young age in a population where football is held in the same reverence as South America.
While most youngsters in New Zealand are blessed with facilities their Solomon Islands counterparts can only dream about, there is no doubt the passion in the two countries is far greater with the "have nots" than the "haves".
The two most sought after items for young boys and, increasingly, young girls in the Solomons are football boots and footballs. They scorn, or simply can't afford, fancy shirts and tracksuits. Give them a ball, a pair of boots and somewhere to play and they are happy.
The skills, an all-too-rare commodity in New Zealand - only Wynton Rufer and Michael Groom (a 20-match New Zealand international in the early 1980s) spring to mind in terms of individual skill and technique - lay the foundation for what seems a never-ending flow of super-talented players to New Zealand and other countries.
The hardest adjustment for undoubtedly skilled players like Batram Suri, Henry Fa'arodo, Commins Menapi, Benjamin Totori and George Suri is taking the skills into an 11-a-side environment. But through the balanced sporting-academic programmes at schools like Nelson College and Mt Albert Grammar these adjustments are being made.
A Learn to Play programme has given new meaning to the game in the island nation. Football is now an important part of daily life in schools.
"We encourage our players to head off to other countries," said Ngava.
"It is the only way for them to get exposure which in turn is good for Solomon Islands football. And, importantly, our national coach always looks to bring these players back to play for us - even if it is very expensive."
Like most, Ngava pays tribute to the co-operation he and his federation enjoys with Auckland City, and in particular Waitakere United.
"The most noticeable thing about our players when they go away and play at clubs like that is the mental composure," said Ngava. "They can't get that experience here."
Elsewhere the Solomons play an important part in Oceania. They have three full FIFA badge-holding referees and four assistants. They also have specialised FIFA futsal and beach soccer referees - all products of a busy refereeing programme which provides 18 referees (and assistants) to the S-League.
The hosting of the O-League games is a major undertaking but one the nation does with pride and aplomb. Nothing was left undone and the Auckland City players rose to the challenge magnificently last weekend.
Even the weather played its part in presenting an overcast, warm day. Not every visiting team can count on that. But they can be assured everything that can be done will be to ensure the visit is an experience players will happily tick-off on their bucket list.