With a population between 10 000 and 12 000 people Tuvalu is one of the smallest nations in the world. Despite it being a tiny speck of dust on the world map they have a football team. A football team that is yet to be included into the FIFA-family, but might play in a World Cup next year. 

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Tuvalu’s national team before the 2011 Pacific Games (Photo credit: Wikicommons/Dutch Support Tuvalu)

Football is one of the biggest sports in Tuvalu and the tiny island nation’s governing football body, the Tuvalu Island Football Association (TIFA), run both men and women’s leagues as well as a junior and youth setup.

Tuvalu’s story is not unique. A small nation with few inhabitants with a love for the beautiful game who are not accepted into FIFA for a variety of reasons, most commonly it is the lack of infrastructure, such as a proper stadium or even a proper pitch (fellow Oceania nation Kiribati play on a mix of sand and gravel/clay and one of Tuvalu’s pitches doubles as an airport runway).

Ironically, these are all elements FIFA will help develop once the nations have joined FIFA. But to get into FIFA they have to have better stadiums and pitches but they can’t afford it unless they are in FIFA which won’t accept them because… you get the point, right? It’s a catch-22 of sorts.

Tuvalu are currently in the middle of a process to send off another application to FIFA, having tried to become full members of both FIFA and Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) since 1987. TIFA President Soseala Tinilau tells Football in Oceania that they are optimistic, but also pessimistic seeing as their last application was rejected.

– For our application submission to FIFA, we would like to say that we are very optimistic about the possibility of becoming a FIFA member and at the same time we feel pessimistic about the prospects because Tuvalu is a very small country with a population of less than 12 000 people and FIFA members might reject our bid again, Tinilau says.

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Tuvalu Sports Ground. Tuvalu’s only real stadium (Photo credit: CONIFA)

The President is well aware of what a FIFA membership could mean in terms of funding for his country.

– It is very important to have a successful application because if we become a FIFA member then we could get access to financial assistance to improve our football infrastructure as well as improving the development of the game in Tuvalu through the hiring of well-qualified coaches from renowned countries to help our junior, youth and women improve their footballing skills.

Previously Tuvalu has had help from all the way across the world in the Netherlands where Paul Driessen zoomed in on Oceania while looking at a map and found Tuvalu. In 2009 the Dutch Support Tuvalu project was born. They have helped Tuvalu out a lot and just before the 2011 Pacific Games they managed to secure the services of former Heerenveen and the Netherlands U-21 and U-23 manager Foppe de Haan for Tuvalu.

The Games were somewhat of a success for Tuvalu as they showed that they have what it takes against FIFA-members. In a group where they were the only non-FIFA participant, they beat American Samoa 4-0, their biggest win ever, and drew 1-1 with Guam. They avoided double-digit scorelines against the better nations Vanuatu (1-5), New Caledonia (0-8) and Solomon Islands (1-6), even scoring some goals.

Historically they haven’t been too far off the mark against some much better nations, drawing with Tahiti in the 2007 Games and only losing 1-0 to New Caledonia. They beat Samoa 3-0 in a friendly prior to the 2011 Games as well. So, it’s not on footballing terms that Tuvalu doesn’t qualify for a FIFA Membership.

After Foppe de Haan left his position following the conclusion of the 2011 Games, the Dutch Support Tuvalu project once again helped out big time.

In 2013, they arranged a three-month long tour of the Netherlands with Tuvalu playing many amateur Dutch sides. They also helped with bringing fellow Dutchman Leen Looijen in as a mentor and coach for that tour.

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Foppe de Haan looks on as Tuvalu lines up for the 2011 Pacific Games (Photo credit: CONIFA)

Despite not being recognized by FIFA, last fall saw Tuvalu take a step towards more organized football. The island became a member of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA).

This governing body is for those who stand outside FIFA and include the national teams of places such as Greenland, Isle of Man, Sapmi, Tibet, Darfur and Western Sahara to name a few.

CONIFA’s General Secretary Sascha Düerkop speaks to Football in Oceania on how Tuvalu’s membership came about.

– The president of TIFA, contacted me in November 2017, expressing Tuvalu’s interest in becoming a CONIFA member. The main intention was TIFA’s long existing hope to play more international football and thus develop the game in the country and the subsequent ignorance of OFC and FIFA.

President Tinilau is grateful for the opportunity this gives to the Tuvaluans.

– Being a member of CONIFA brings a lot of opportunities to our players such as more games for Tuvalu National Teams at a higher level and Tuvalu players will access very good facilities,  Tinilau says.

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The Tuvalu team in action (Photo credit: CONIFA)

The CONIFA membership also gives the Tuvaluans a chance to participate in a World Cup. Every other year CONIFA hosts the World Football Cup and Tinilau is hopeful that his nation can attend. The next edition will be held next year.

– We hope to attend the World Cup by merit or through a Wild Card application. TIFA will look for sponsors to financially support the national team should we qualify to the CONIFA World Cup next year. Our players have never experienced playing in a World Cup and this will be a good opportunity to expose them to such quality, high standard football. It’s a very good opportunity for young players.

Düerkop can reveal that they are making arrangements for Tuvalu and CONIFA’s other Oceania nation, Kiribati, to play more football.

– We are just rolling out a huge “Oceania development programme” to find and build opposition in the region and we are trying hard to realize friendly matches against their “local CONIFA neighbors” – Ryukyu and Kiribati. Ultimately, we hope to assist either Kiribati or Tuvalu to be the first ever Oceanian team to play a World Football Cup outside FIFA in 2018.

CONIFA and Düerkop are clear on the fact that Tuvalu should have joined FIFA a long time ago and says that they do what they can to assist.

– CONIFA understands itself as a service organization to our members. This means, that we try to help and assist wherever it is needed. In the case of Tuvalu, we are trying hard to realize their dreams of international football and, in parallel, help them with their overdue FIFA and OFC membership.

– While the TIFA is a strong and very greatly run Football Association and did not need much assistance in developing the game locally, they find it hard to get the word out and find internationally recognition and opposition on the field, Düerkop says.

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Tuvalu lining up for a match against SV Panningen during their tour of the Netherlands (Photo credit: Pat’s Football Blog | patmcguinness.blogspot.co.uk)

Düerkop explains how CONIFA are helping Tuvalu join FIFA.

– We teamed up with a great sports lawyer, who is helping the noble cause on a pro bono basis, to ensure that we submit a completely flawless application to the OFC and FIFA next time.

– Furthermore, we did prepare ourselves to assist the TIFA in a possible CAS case, in the unlikely event that another, technically perfect, application will again be ignored or rejected.

With the help of people like the Dutch Support Tuvalu project and CONIFA, Tuvalu now stands a better chance of being accepted into FIFA, an organisation who claims they are trying to “develop football everywhere and for all, to touch the world through its inspiring tournaments and to build a better future through the power of the game.”

If more nations like Tuvalu are accepted, then maybe people can start believing in that slogan again instead of just remembering the recent years shady organisation.

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Thanks to Tuvalu Islands Football Association President Soseala Tinilau for his time and for being so helpful. You can visit TIFA’s website here, or visit their CONIFA page here.

You can follow the Dutch Support Tuvalu Project on Twitter here or visit their website here.

Finally, a big thank you to CONIFA and Sascha Düerkop for their time and answers.