As one of the smallest nations in FIFA, the Cook Islands are doing a lot of things right to bring football to everyone in the tiny island country and that might bring some long wanted results.
COOK ISLANDS FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION FACTS:
- FA ESTABLISHED: 1971
- OFC/FIFA Member: 1994
- PRESIDENT: Lee Harmon
- MEN’S NATIONAL TEAM MANAGER: No one at present time
- WOMEN’S NATIONAL TEAM MANAGER: Jimmy Kaota
- NATIONAL STADIUM: National Stadium, Avarua
- SENIOR TOP DIVSIONS: CIFA Round Cup (Men and Women)
The Cook Islands consists of several islands, 15 in total, whose area cover 240 square kilometres of land. The total area of Cook Islands, however, cover a total of 1,800,000 square kilometres of water as well, an area roughly the size of western Europe. The main island is Rarotonga, with a population of just over 10,000, and this is where the main football hub in the Cooks lies.
The national division, the CIFA Round Cup, is mainly contested by teams on Rarotonga and due to the vast distances between the islands the economic and logistic challenges are not always easy to solve.
The national team played their first match on the 2nd of September 1971 and was thoroughly thumped by Tahiti, losing 30-0 away in Papeete. This remains their biggest defeat to this date.
Their first OFC Nations Cup appearance in 1998 saw the team face hosts Australia and Fiji in Group B and while they lost 16-0 to Australia they managed a much better showing against Fiji, limiting the deficit to only three, losing 3-0.
They then appeared at the next Nations Cup in 2000 in Tahiti where they once again faced Australia and they – once again – were thumped, losing 17-0. They also lost 5-1 to the other team in the group, Solomon Islands, and have never since qualified for the Nations Cup.
They have, unsurprisingly never appeared at a World Cup and will not be seen in Russia 2018 either as the Cook Islands got knocked out in the first round on goal difference behind Samoa all the way back in 2015.
One of the challenges the Cook Islands face is the dual nationality that all Cook Islanders have with New Zealand as the nation is part of the “Realm of New Zealand”. While the nation only has a population of 21,000 there are many Cook Islanders who resides in New Zealand. This has led to several possible Cook Islands players holding off to wait for a call up to the New Zealand national team and often getting one, making the recruitment of players difficult for the tiny nation.
Interview with Harriet Tuara, Media Officer at The Cook Islands Football Association
Football In Oceania: What does the FA do in order to promote football in the Cook Islands to get as many kids playing as possible?
Harriet Tuara: – CIFA has several National Academies running throughout the year specifically aimed at developing youth players from Under 13 up to Under 20. These camps are run by the technical department with the assistance of certified coaches from outside of CIFA. Sessions run throughout the week starting in February and finishes in December.
Also running at the same time is an in-school programme that goes throughout the whole first semester of school. This is an annual programme which was established in partnership with the Ministry of Education and all the primary schools on Rarotonga and what it is, is that CIFA technical development officers visit the various schools on the island and offer 30-45 minute training sessions with students from Grade/ Year 5 upwards. They train for one whole semester in preparation for a one-day inter-school football tournament at the end of the term.
And off course outside of the CIFA technical department we have the Just Play Programme for 5-13 year olds and this project is headed by Michelle Paiti. This initiative expands beyond Rarotonga with Mangaia, Atiu, Mitiaro, Aitutaki and Palmerston Island now enforcing it in their schools and community group activities.
Collectively, these programmes help promote the game of football and the response from the community has been tremendous over the years.
FIO: Do the FA have any kind of structured plans/goals for the youth and senior national teams to achieve?
– As mentioned, there are several national academies that run throughout the year. There are five national camps in total with the aim to increase this to six next year. These will be for Boys U13, U15, U17 and U20. Girls U17 which will also have a younger girls age group being formed in the next 4-6weeks. CIFA has talent identified these players from the previous Rarotonga domestic club competition. The national program operates an all-round holistic elite level program incorporating football, strength and conditioning, regular fitness testing, performance reviews, nutritional and video analysis lectures. It embodies close to 100 players from the 7 local domestic clubs and quite simply the objective of these camps is to lift the standard of elite player levels in the country for future oceania and international tournaments.
FIO: What is the Cook Islands FA’s stand on the possible expansion of the FIFA World Cup? Will you welcome such a thing?
– We welcome the expansion of the FIFA World Cup and feel that it is a step forward for us. As much as it will benefit other countries we definitely appreciate the change as it gives us another platform to qualify for the FIFA World Cup and therefore an opportunity for the rest of the world to see us.
FIO: In Oceania in general Rugby is a very popular sport, do you feel that rugby perhaps takes away a lot of attention and perhaps also young players that you could hope to get?
– I feel that football has achieved a lot over the years within the Oceania region and as it continues to rapidly grow across the Pacific ocean it is gaining more and more attention amongst the communities. Rugby may undoubtedly be dominant in our respective communities; however, I believe for the short time football has been here it has grown significantly popular especially amongst our children/ youth players.
Thanks to Harriet Tuara for her time and insight