In this article, guest writer Sascha Düerkop takes a closer look at three of the UN nations of Oceania that are left out of the Oceania Football Confederation and FIFA.
Guest writer: Sascha Düerkop
Any research on football in Oceania typically starts by visiting the official homepage of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), which governs football in Oceania. On the “About us” tab of its homepage, the OFC proclaims that “OFC is currently made up of 11 Member Associations and three Associate Members, which it supports through a variety of means including financially and pedagogically”. While the homepage contains plenty of information about the 11 Member Associations, it has, however, barely any content on the three Associate Members. Who are they? When did they join? Why are there Associate Members and what does this status mean for them?
Who are they?
A seemingly trivial question that Wikipedia answers by listing Kiribati, Niue and Tuvalu as Associate Members. The source linked in the Wikipedia article is non-function, but an archived sub-page of the OFC homepage from 2016 indeed confirms this list (Click on the number to see the footnote link. All footnotes can be found at the bottom of this article, ed.).
Just a click further on Wikipedia, you might wonder how Niue, which confusingly is listed as “Niue Islands” by OFC despite being just a single island territory, could become an associate member in 2006 when their national team only ever played in 1983 and the local league ceased to exist 2006 (with a brief revival 2010-2012).
If any of the three mentioned countries is still an associate member of OFC remains unclear. Requests to the OFC in this regard remained unanswered. The current homepage of the OFC does not name its associate members at all and has no list of actual members anywhere. It only ever mentions Tuvalu in articles on the Pacific Games 2007 and 2017 and in the annual report 2017, calling them associate member on all three occasions.
This article seeks to explore the status of all three of those who might be associate members and their history with OFC and FIFA.
The Kiribati Islands Football Association (KIFA) is the governing body of football in the UN member state of Kiribati and is acknowledged as such by the local National Olympic Committee and the government alike. While the Kiribati Olympic Committee is recognised by the International Olympic Committee, KIFA remains one of the few associations representing a UN member that are not a member of FIFA.
In 2006, KIFA initially applied for FIFA membership. When KIFA submitted a new application on 7 October 2010, then FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke notes on the 2006 application that “a first application [in 2006] was refused after FIFA advised to work on the development of football before applying once more”. This advice is not only very vague, but also not covered by the Statutes of FIFA, which make no demands whatsoever on the degree of development of football of any applicant. In the same letter, General Secretary Valcke confirms that the 2011 application is rejected as well, as no development report for the time 2006-2010 was provided, a document that is not required as part of an application by FIFA’s regulations governing the admissions of members. FIFA further points to missing minutes of the KIFA general assembly, a report on the sporting infrastructure that is considered “too succinct to get a proper idea” and a report on the competitions in Kiribati that is “a bit confusing as we [FIFA] do not understand the system in place”. KIFA then provided all that, which Mr. Valcke acknowledge in a letter dated 7 March 2011, but again refused to formally start the application process, as KIFA’s development report for the years 2006-2011 was still missing and it is thus “difficult to have a proper idea”. To get a picture of the applicant, he proposes that a delegation of FIFA and the OFC come to Kiribati and inspect the local facilities in the second half of 2011.
Following said inspection visit, which was carried out in September 2011, FIFA informed Kiribati that it does not qualify for FIFA membership for three reasons, which will be discussed in more detail here:
- The competition structure has to be improved so as to make it a nationwide competition rather than just one island.
While a nationwide is clearly a desirable demand towards a national sport governing body, it is everything but normal within FIFA today. In OFC alone, six out of the eleven members currently do not have a nationwide league and, indeed, do not organise football in most of their territory: American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tahiti and Tonga all just maintain leagues on their respective main island (Tutuila, Rarotonga, Tahiti Nui, Tongatapu). The Fijian league only includes the two main islands of Vanua Levu and Viti Levu, while the Samoan league is even entirely restricted to clubs from the capital city of Apia. Finally, having a nationwide league is no defined requirement for membership in either OFC or FIFA.
- An annual reporting of the KIFA activities has to be improved so as to clearly explain the activities undertaken yearly and to include pictures so that it can be followed easily.
Again, this is not a requirement of the regulations of either FIFA nor OFC and is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution or the Regulations of either body. It is also worth mentioning that none of the OFC members do currently publish any Activity reports. Finally, KIFAs application, which we had access to, does contain an extensive 10 pages report about all football activities since the foundation of KIFA and several pictures, although it admittedly does not contain full picture galleries of every footballing event.
- The football pitch needs improvement
This is the argument that hurt KIFA the most, as the prime reason to join FIFA and OFC for them, apart from having international competition, was the chance to renovate their national stadium “Bairiki”. For a decade, KIFA is seeking assistance to install an artificial pitch in the stadium, but has no access to any development grant schemes due to the lack of recognition by OFC and FIFA. For the sake of formality, it is also noted that the regulations of FIFA and OFC make no requirements to ay pitches whatsoever and that several FIFA members joined without having any (Montserrat) or any qualified (Gibraltar) stadium and only and solely played abroad for years.
- READ MORE: Kiribati: Fighting for FIFA membership
Summed up, KIFA did not lack any of the requirement, but FIFA and OFC still did decide to not bring the application forward to a voting of their members, but instead gave them advise how to develop football locally, without providing any assistance in doing so. Given the fact that currently every FIFA member in Oceania is receiving at least (Cook Islands) 1.7 million US Dollar, KIFA argues that a FIFA and OFC membership would overnight put them in a situation where they can suddenly really invest in their development, which they can hardly do today, operating on a budget of less than 50,000 US Dollar a year. Furthermore, neither OFC nor FIFA defined a clear path to move forward and actually join both organisations, but instead ignored further requests from KIFA for years afterwards.
On 18 September 2015, KIFA then submitted another application to both, FIFA and OFC, and requested further information about the current status of the process. Then acting FIFA general secretary, Markus Kattner, replied in a letter dated 16 November 2015 by informing KIFA that “according to art 10 par 2 of the FIFA Statutes, membership of FIFA is only permitted if an association is currently a member of a confederation, and under art 3 par 1 (t) of the Regulations Governing the Admissions of Associations to FIFA, the application must contain a respective confirmation by the confederation, according to which the applicant is a member of the confederation”. It further clarifies, “for the sake of clarification, please note that the term ‘member of a confederation’ stipulated in art 10 par 2 of the FIFA Statutes refers to full membership of a confederation and that any kind of restructure membership of a confederation cannot be subsumed under said term”.
KIFA understood that they first have to join OFC to stand a chance to join FIFA and thus got in touch with them once again, enclosing the letter they received from Mr. Kattner. To the surprise of KIFA, then OFC general secretary Tai Nicholas replied on the 19 November by email that “to become a full member of OFC you must first become a member of FIFA”. In December of the same year, Tai Nicholas then approved that the case is entirely with FIFA now and he is sure FIFA will be in touch soon. This never happened and FIFA never got in touch with KIFA, which is in line with the letter of Mr. Kattner, indeed. After months of silence, OFC general secretary Tai Nicholas finally replied to one of the various letters and emails of KIFA again in May 2016. In his email, general secretary Nicholas finally confirms that the OFC Statutes and the FIFA Statutes are contradictory and admits that their statutes have to be amended. He proposes to seek clarification from FIFA and seeking advise from them to amend their Statutes to be harmonised with FIFA regulations. They further proposed to, again, send a delegation to Kiribati to inspect the local facilities and to vote on a full membership of KIFA at their upcoming OFC Congress 2016.
What followed was another misunderstanding, unsurprisingly. The OFC did not amend their statutes (until this day) and did not send a delegation or vote on a full membership of KIFA at the Congress 2016, because KIFA did not reply to an email send by Mr. Nicholas, as he claims. KIFA vigorously rejects this claim, but remained positive that the process is just delayed for another year at this point. As a sign of good will, OFC granted KIFA a 30,000 NZD development grant for the year 2017 to further up their local game. At the same time, they ignored all further communication ever since. Thus, KIFA contacted FIFA again, this time through their newly appointed Director Member Associations Sanjeevan Balasingam, who informed KIFA in March 2017, after coordinating with the OFC, that there is nothing FIFA can do for them, unless they get full membership in OFC. He further emphasized as well that “he learned that [KIFA] receives an annual grant of 30,000 NZD”.
The OFC also directly reacted to the communication between KIFA and OFC, by complaining that KIFA contacted FIFA without prior notice to the OFC. This, after years of frustration, led the then KIFA president to write a rather undiplomatic mail to OFC general secretary Tai Nicholas, accusing him of lying to FIFA and KIFA alike. As a reaction this, Mr. Nicholas very directly threatened to cancel the development grant to KIFA immediately, saying “it is inappropriate to ask the OFC General Secretary for funding of $30,000 while accusing him of lying […]. Following your recent allegations your request for funding will be reviewed by the OFC Executive Committee”.
- READ MORE: Kiribati FA President: “The OFC is coming”
What remains for KIFA is the OFC Associate Membership, which the OFC got not tired of mentioning in every mail and letter sent to KIFA. Indeed, a document signed by Mr. Tai Nicholas and dated 1 July 2007, confirms that KIFA is an associate member of OFC since the Oceania Football Confederation Extraordinary Congress held on 28 May 2007 in Zurich, Switzerland. According to the OFC Statutes art 10 par 1, KIFA should thus have the following rights:
- To take part in the Congress and exercise their right to speak but not to vote.
On request, KIFA says it has never been invited to the OFC Congress and has thus no chance to speak, a notion that is supported by the reports about the OFC Congress on their official homepage, which states that “all 11 OFC Member Associations [are] represented”, but makes no mention of their Associate Members whatsoever.
- To take part in the competitions organised by OFC
Again, KIFA claims it was never invited to any OFC competitions until this day, a notion that is supported by the fact that no Associate Member of the OFC has ever competed in any of the competitions and that the systems drawn up for competitions, such as the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, are not considering any Associate Members as participants.
- To take part in some OFC assistance and development programmes as approved by the Executive Committee.
This right was indeed granted to KIFA, who received said development assistance of 30,000 NZD for two consecutive years (2014 and 2015).
The Niue Island Soccer Association (NISA) has a particularly bizarre history when it comes to FIFA and OFC applications. According to NISA, they have applied for OFC and FIFA membership briefly after having played their only ever international football matches at the Pacific Games 1983. They have then been invited to meet representatives of both organisations, including Sepp Blatter, in Samoa, New Zealand and Tahiti, which they did, although it meant investing significant private investments of the volunteers running NISA. After those meetings, FIFA informed them that they should again come to New Zealand to submit their application to a FIFA delegate in Auckland in person. They flew out, but only to find that the FIFA representative never showed up, went back and posted their application.
They got no response, neither formally nor informally, for more than a year, initially, but kept following it up. Eventually, FIFA wrote them a letter stating that Niue is way too small and should thus consider joining the Fiji football association as a regional sub-organisation. That deeply insulted NISA, who have no political bonds to Fiji and no flight connection to the country, so that they decided to develop the beautiful game independently for a while instead. A local three-tier league system was thriving at the time and football slowly became the number one sport on “the rock”, as Niueans call their island. Over the years, the population reduced drastically due to natural disasters and the volunteers running NISA struggled to finance all activities with their private funds any longer, so that the league ceased to exist in 2006. It shortly revived as a single-tier league from 2010 to 2012, but the sport then slowly died out on Niue.
When contacting NISA, which still exists on paper, they were thus very surprised to learn that they are apparently an OFC associate member since 2006. They have not had any exchange with OFC since the early 1990s, so they had no explanation for their new status. Like Kiribati, they have never been invited to an OFC Congress or invited to any competition and, unlike Kiribati, they have also not received any grants. Ironically, the OFC Financial Reports 2013 and 2014, which are both still online, instead claim that Niue owes the OFC 200 USD for each year. As the financial report does not detail those outstanding payments, it can only be assumed that those should be membership fees of some form.
Summing up the Niue case in the shortest possible form, they became associate members roughly 20 years after applying for full membership, are owing the OFC member, but got no rights for their membership, and are incorrectly named as “Niue Islands” by the continental governing body. On request, the OFC could not provide any further information.
The Tuvalu Islands Football Association was founded in 1979 and is governing football in the UN member state of Tuvalu ever since. As their i-Kiribati and Niue counterparts, the organization is recognized as the sport’s governing body by the Tuvaluan National Olympic Committee. Beyond that, they also share the frustration of a long and fruitless campaign to join the OFC and FIFA.
The tiny Pacific nation, which only has about 12,000 inhabitants, initially applied for FIFA membership immediately after their foundation around 1980. While not much is known about this first push, the membership never materialized and neither official FIFA nor OFC records do in any way confirm that an official application was put in.
The first effort to join FIFA that got more public was in 2008, when the Tuvaluan Prime Minister at the time, visited Brussels to open an official Tuvaluan representation in Europe. Before heading back to the Pacific, he paid Zurich a visit and met then FIFA President Sepp Blatter. A picture of that is still available on the FIFA homepage. In the same year, the FIFA Magazine “Ke Nako” calls Tuvalu, who entered the qualification for the FIFA World Cup 2010 strangely, a “non-official FIFA member” , whatever that exactly means.
A second attempt was made from 2011 onwards, when Tuvalu again submitted an application to both OFC and FIFA. In 2013, this application was reportedly rejected, although there is again no official published record or documentation of such rejection. The global media, including British BBC, reported that the OFC did reject the application, not FIFA, and that the official reason was a lack of facilities. The BBC quotes then OFC General Secretary Tai Nicholas saying “the regulations state that members must have the infrastructure to host international football matches and tournaments and, since Tuvalu does not have a stadium, training grounds or hotels, this is the biggest hurdle for membership”.
In fact, however, Tuvalu does have a stadium, the 1,500 seats “Tuvalu Sports Ground”, which hosts all national league fixtures. Some media outlets, such as the New Zealand based “Stuff”, falsely reported that all matches in Tuvalu are played on the tarmac of the only airport, which is factually wrong and enrages the Tuvaluans, as it makes them look much less prepared than they actually are. The airport landing strip is indeed for football, and other sports, as it is the only flat land of reasonable size on the main atoll of Funafuti, but no official sport events have ever been held here. Finally, it is important to note that the OFC regulations do not require their members to have any facilities at all and certainly not of certain standards. Historically, the OFC and FIFA have, indeed, admitted countries into FIFA without any football venues, such as American Samoa, which is using the aptly named “Joseph Blatter Sports Complex” for all their matches, which was entirely funded by FIFA long after their admission into the organisation.
Equally, the regulations make not define any requirements to training pitches or hotels. While Tuvalu does have a total of four hotels and surely the capacity to host a full football squad, they are again not of a great international standard. However, demanding that a football association is responsible for the existence of hotels the highest quality in the country they reside seems to stand on loose grounds legally. TIFA, after all, is a football organisation and neither a hotel operator, nor the government, and OFC statutes indeed clearly demand that is has to be fully independent of the latter to be able to join the OFC. The same is obviously true for the lack of airports (there is only one) and connections (there are only international connections to Fiji, Kiribati and Nauru), which Tai Nicholas criticises in his interview with “Stuff”.
- READ MORE: INTERVIEW: Tuvalu President Tinilau on the CONIFA World Football Cup and FIFA application
Finally, for the sake of fairness, it has to be mentioned that Tuvalu has indeed received OFC grants for development of 30,000 Dollar in 2014, but none of the other benefits of OFC Associate Membership, yet, much like Kiribati. Like Niue, the OFC financial reports of 2013 and 2014 do contain outstanding debts of Tuvalu towards the OFC for an undescribed reason.
Summing up the journey of Kiribati, Niue and Tuvalu into OFC and FIFA, it is an ongoing struggle. None of the three have received the statutory guaranteed rights as an associate member of the OFC, yet, and the current status seems to hold them back, rather than helping them to proceed their efforts.
The only good news for the three countries in limbo is, arguably, that the OFC and FIFA staff that has worked on their application cases on the OFC and FIFA side all left their positions: On FIFAs end, former president Sepp Blatter is currently serving a six-year ban from the FIFA ethics committee, while former and long-term FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke is banned until 2028 by the same body.
At OFC, former president David Chung, like his predecessor Reynald Tamarii, is likewise banned from all football activities by the FIFA ethics committee currently. Tai Nicholas, who was responsible for most of the bids as OFC’s general secretary, is also banned, for eight years, for corruption. While this shows one of the issue international football governance has, it might be a chance for the three OFC associate members, who are now meeting entirely fresh faces to deal with. A dent in the hopes of all three for the future, however, is the ongoing contradiction between the OFC and FIFA Statutes, which both demand full membership in the other body first.
Finally, it is worth noting that others in the Pacific are fighting the same battle with the football authorities. The Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Palau all reportedly have applied unsuccessfully for membership in OFC and FIFA and all are full UN member states.
Unlike Kiribati, Tuvalu and Niue, they have not been granted associate membership even, for unknown reasons. Given the sheer number of cases, the increasing frustration and more and more initiatives that seek to help out those island nations, there is hope that one day the unreasoned hurdles will be overcome for one, many or all of them, if needed via the Court of Arbitration in Sport of which an arbitrator wrote to the author of this article that:
“There is no reason they cannot be in FIFA and I have no doubts they would win a CAS case”.
Editors note: Sascha Düerkop is the General Secretary of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA), where both Tuvalu and Kiribati are members.