Tonga comes into every tournament being perhaps the team least expected to make any kind of waves. But given time and the right help, they could make headways, Mohammad Rajani believes.
He’s part of the Tongan U23 team currently competing in the Olympic qualifiers, for a spot at Tokyo 2020. Despite going down by four to Fiji, the Tongans managed to grab a late goal, showing character, and making the final scoreline 4-1 to the hosts.
“Our first game against Fiji was great. I think we can take a lot away from it, as can all of OFC. We showed that we have a lot of heart, and have come a long way in terms of development,” Rajani tells Football in Oceania.
“We put up a good fight, and I think again the difference in experience and level began to show at the 50-60th-minute mark. The tactical and technical aspects of our game can be improved; however, I am very proud of the work ethic and fight that our boys showed. I think we shocked a lot of people. I stand proud with these boys and am very happy with the way Tonga has progressed with our football.”
The Sydney native can play for Tonga thanks to his Tongan mother and says he grew up in a mostly Tongan culture.
The Tonga FA has kept tabs on Rajani since he was a kid and he’s previously been capped at the U19 level for his mother’s country, playing in the OFC U19 qualifiers and the tournament proper.
“We did well in the qualifiers, I scored two goals on my debut for Tonga which was a dream come true. The difference in the level between Tonga and the top Oceania nations were clear when we progressed to the next stage, however, we played hard and strong and were proud,” Rajani recalls.
He believes that football in the country is growing and with the right help from outside, they could make big strides. If given the time and backing to do so.
“I think that, slowly, football in Tonga is growing. Obviously, throughout the country, rugby is the dominant sport in the culture. However, with time and work, football will grow there. I really believe that Tonga could benefit from support from overseas. Help from professional coaches and people who have valuable knowledge and resources to help grow the football culture Tonga. That would be a great help to us.
“Tongan football has a lot of potential, there is a lot of talent there, so we just need that extra step forward in terms of training and development throughout the age groups to ensure that we can produce quality players just like every other nation in Oceania.”
Next up for Tonga are PNG and Vanuatu, with the latter being their next game on Wednesday 25th at 12 Fiji time. Rajani hopes they can learn from the Fiji game and give two good performances, and maybe even take a result away.
“The goals that we have set are mainly around our tactics within our game plan. We are looking to correct and strengthen our mistakes and weaknesses, to put up a good fight against Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. I am confident that we can produce results against both sides,” Rajani says.