Kiribati are trying to gain entry into the football world, but are currently left alone to play football on their beautiful islands. But they want so much more, and helping them with that is one man from England.
Kiribati is a nation of 103,500 people comprised of 33 atolls and reef islands plus one raised coral island, the beautiful and tiny island of Banaba. 23 of these are inhabited, but most of the country’s inhabitants live on the main atoll Tarawa.
Despite the country being scattered around on many islands and atolls football still thrives in the country that gained its independence on this day from the United Kingdom in 1979.
And like a country previously profiled on this website, Tuvalu, they are still fighting for membership to FIFA and a full membership to the OFC.
Ambassador and International Manager of the Kiribati Islands Football Association, Englishman Jake Kewley, tells of a country where football is huge to the locals. The Taiwan Cup is the national tournament being held every year and last year’s edition saw a massive participation:
“Each island has its own FA which runs their respective leagues and each island sent a team to play in the 2016 Taiwan Cup although some extra teams also participated (there were 60 in total).”
The league is in the process of being re-evaluated as part of the application to FIFA.
Kewley says both FIFA and OFC are difficult to work with and that neither seems to be willing to make the first move.
“Our application is ongoing, submitted in 2015, but has stalled progressively over that time due to various complications and counter demands from both FIFA and the OFC, with the situation essentially boiling down to both organisations wanting us to become full members of the other prior to being accepted as a member of their own – as frustrating as it sounds!”
As for Tuvalu, Kiribati also struggles with playing surfaces, most of their pitches are sand-based, as well as several other things.
“One of our biggest obstacles is implementing a suitable playing surface – due to weather conditions and available space/constant use – the pitches struggle to maintain any grass covering which is a requirement of FIFA in respect of hosting another nation. While this isn’t unfeasible it will require work and funding to achieve of which the latter is limited. Aside from that an implementation of a nationwide league is also financially a struggle as establishing a feasible domestic travel schedule between the various participating Islands is difficult to say the least!”
Kewley has been to Kiribati once, back in 2015, and does his work for KIFA from the UK. Of his time there he says he spent most of his time “coaching local sides and running workshops alongside evaluating and upgrading their current facilities and methods” but one thing surprised him:
“They all really enjoyed playing but rarely get to see any actual matches – live games and TV, in general, were limited – but they all seemed to still know of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo! Only a few knew of Manchester United or Wayne Rooney which was surprising given their global reach.”
And Kewley can see light at the end of the tunnel:
“Given time, resources and desire I don’t see why any country can’t aspire to become more than a placeholder. In the first instance gaining FIFA recognition and funding would go a long way to improving the current facilities and coaching and certainly time would be needed to establish a more competitive side, but from the standard of play and love of the game I saw during my time there I’m optimistic that a Kiribati side would improve year on year to become a competitive Oceanic team.”
And he might be right, at the Pacific Games in 2011 Kiribati only lost 0—2 to the Cook Islands, and although they are yet to record a win they can only get better in time. But if the grass game shouldn’t work out, there’s always one other route they could take. The Tahiti National Beach Soccer team recently came second in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup and has shown over the last years that they can do a lot if given the chance and a switch to beach soccer might be an alternative.
“Beach soccer is another route, and yes the pitches are mostly sand but currently I’m focusing on an 11 a side team. Again, given time I don’t see why they couldn’t gain success with going for that option,” Kewley says.
But there is some good news for Kiribati: last year they became a member of the Confederation for Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) and last month they were selected as Oceania’s representative for next year’s CONIFA World Football Cup. Kewley is now going to start looking for funding from the Kiribati government to get a team to the competition set to be held next summer.
Football in Oceania wishes Kiribati and Jake Kewley all the best with the applications and the preparation for the CONIFA World Cup.
A big thank you to Jake Kewley for his time, help and insight. You can follow Jake on Twitter here.
You can check out the Kiribati FA’s homepage here