Pacific nations return from football wilderness
By Matthew Nash
The national men’s football teams of American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga will soon return to the official FIFA world rankings when they play their first match in over four years.
All three teams are set to compete at the Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands, with the men’s football competition taking place from tomorrow, Friday, November 17. But they are doing so with the regret that they are currently unranked by football’s world governing body.
The three Pacific nations were scrubbed from the rankings, currently topped by Argentina’s Lionel Messi, due to a four-year period of inactivity in July.
The trio played their last competitive match on July 18, 2019, at the previous edition of the Pacific Games. To be eligible for official FIFA lists, teams must have played a game in the last 48 months.
All three missed the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar – their best chance for regular football in that period.
American Samoa and Samoa pulled out due to the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tonga were then forced to withdraw from a one-off match against the Cook Islands, following the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption and tsunami in December 2021.
However, former head coach of Samoa, Matt Calcott, believes that the problems are more widespread than just related to Covid-19.
The New Zealander was appointed in February 2021, as the pandemic progressed, but left his role late last year without ever leading his team in a senior game.
Calcott acknowledges the impact of Covid-19 in the early stages of his tenure but points out that Samoa’s borders reopened in August 2022 and that there were possibilities to play elsewhere as well.
“We talked about trying to do mini tours within New Zealand,” Calcott said.
“We had a national camp in Auckland last year, which was very well received, a bunch of boys flew in from all over New Zealand and Australia and there was a real buzz.
“The Federation said they were going to pump out six years but it turned out to be kind of a one week thing.”
During his time with the island nation, he was part of a talent identification program that helped to find a number of players of Samoan heritage across Australia and New Zealand. He estimates that 40-50 players have been identified in total, a recruitment program that has attracted the attention of the international media.
Despite some success in the women’s and youth space, Calcott fears that this opportunity will not be effectively exploited.
“There’s kind of like a whole generation of new players now that makes a big difference and that’s where the frustration is,” he explained.
“There’s a lot of pressure on these players and I wouldn’t be surprised if they could cope and do good things but unfortunately it feels like it might not continue.”
Barriers to growth
Although Calcott could not speak to the specific experiences of American Samoa and Tonga, he believes the Samoan case highlights the difficulties small nations face in aligning their football programs with the demands of the executive above them.
“There needs to be some strong conversations with OFC and FIFA around countries like Samoa,” he said.
“In this case, they had access to good coaches, they had access to good facilities. Programs were proposed and not long implemented but the failure to keep things running may have been costly.
“I don’t want to be too harsh but I don’t see what the barriers were other than in the office.
“I’m still quite passionate about Samoa and I still like to see them do well but you can only do so much. It’s like a horse-to-water starting situation.”
OFC, which governs the 11 nations in the Oceania football region, says support has been provided to all nations throughout the pandemic. Not just financially, for example through the OFC Solidarity Fund, but through high performance consultancy and, in the case of Samoa, the use of facilities.
“Covid-19 and the border closure in 2020 closed our competitions for more than two years,” said OFC head of football, Patrick Jacquemet.
“The Pacific Ocean was hit hard and it took some time to fully reopen borders and resume competitions.”
The American Samoa national football team is a hot topic again at the moment, with The Next Goal Wins, the Taika Waititi-directed feature hitting the screens recently. The film shows the true story of the team’s 31-0 world record humiliation to Australia in 2001.
Despite the defeat, American Samoa was at least a nation according to the FIFA rankings for that game, although they were dead at 203. Now, along with Samoa and Tonga, they find themselves in the wilderness.
Calcott believes it is a situation that could easily have been avoided with the right organisation, suggesting the teams could play each other, perhaps at neutral venues in Australia or New Zealand.
Sometimes, the players themselves drive things. Sources inside one of the respective camps, who we have agreed not to identify, suggested that players had tried to contact their federation’s head office for months to no avail. All three nations were contacted for comment on this story, but did not respond.
This week marks the end of the football break for American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga teams and they will soon return to the FIFA World Rankings.
But to avoid becoming unranked again in another four years, Calcott has learned a simple message from his tumultuous tenure at the helm of Apia.
“The big thing for Samoa and teams like that, and I say this in a positive way, for the men and the women is that they have to play, have camps and meet regularly,” he says.
“There’s a lot of other things going on of course but the most important thing is to keep your teams out there playing games, improving and being in strong programs. The big message here I’m trying to say is simple – don’t forget football.”
Samoa begin their Pacific Games men’s football campaign against host nation Solomon Islands tomorrow, before taking on American Samoa in their first game of the tournament three days later on November 20.
Tonga begin their campaign against New Caledonia on Saturday.
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