The curious case of Northern Mariana Islands and what OFC can learn from it

In this article, guest writer Adam Beaumont, takes a look at Asia’s newest fully-fledged football family member, and compares them to Tuvalu and Kiribati. What have a nation located in Oceania gained from joining the Asian confederation?

The Northern Mariana Islands have made big strides the last few years. (Photo credit: Julia Espino/NMIFA Media)

By: Adam Beaumont

On the 9th December 2020, at the virtual congress of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association (NMIFA) were admitted to the AFC as a full member. From associate membership in July 2009, it took 11 years for the islands to become the AFC’s 2nd full Micronesian member.

Micronesia is generally recognised as one of the constituent components of Oceania, along with Polynesia and Melanesia. However, the Oceanian Football Confederation has no Micronesian full members, with Kiribati only being an associate member. Guam and now the Northern Mariana Islands (NMIs) are full AFC members, with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia both being previously recommended to seek AFC membership instead.

So, how much benefit did the NMIs have from their OFC then AFC associate memberships? How does this compare to Tuvalu and Kiribati’s associate memberships in the OFC?

Northern Mariana Islands

Initially football in the NMIs started life as the Northern Mariana Islands Soccer Federation (NMISF), though their actual origins are hard to pinpoint. The earliest evidence of a national side appears to be their withdrawal from the 1983 South Pacific Games, though they didn’t then play until 1998.  1998 and 1999 saw games in Micronesia, against the likes of Palau and the states of FSM. Associate membership of the OFC was granted at some point, with sources saying 1983 or 1998, though this could just be because they played or attempted to play international matches around those times. Regardless, by 2002, they were associate members of the OFC but football had largely died out on the islands, with NMISF essentially disappearing.

Football is popular in NMI. Here from the 2020 AFC Women’s Football Day. (Photo credit: NMIFA)

2005 saw the reformation of organised football, with NMIFA being formed. With appeals for grants to the OFC falling largely on deaf ears, they took the recommendation they got, which was to join the EAFF in order to get grants to play. The EAFF or East Asian Football Federation is one of several subsets of the AFC that run their own competitions separate to the main AFC competitions. They gained associate membership of the EAFF in December 2006, playing their first games the following March against neighbours Guam. Full membership followed in September 2008 and EAFF games would continue every 2 years in a group format, typically against Guam, Mongolia and Macau (though they’ve also played Chinese Taipei).

Having played no games against OFC members across their entire history, they left the OFC in the 2009 Congress as no progress from associate membership seemed likely. The following month they were admitted as an AFC associate member and participated in their first EAFF Women’s Championship that August. A gap followed, with nothing until 2012 when they played in both EAFF competitions once more, but this proved to be a springboard for change.

In 2018 the NMI National Training Center opened. (Photo credit: Megan Aglipay/NMIFA Media)

Between 2013 and 2020 NMIFA participated in:

  • 3 * EAFF Championships Preliminary Qualifying Rounds (senior men’s squad, 2015, 2017, 2019)
  • AFC Challenge Cup qualification (senior men’s squad, 2014)
  • 3 * EAFF Championships (senior women’s squad, 2015, 2017, 2019)
  • 2 * AFC U19 Championship qualifications (2016, 2020)
  • AFC U19 Women’s Championship qualification (2017)
  • 4 * AFC U16 Championship qualifications (2014, 2016, 2018, 2020)
  • AFC U16 Women’s Championship qualification (2017)
  • AFC U14 Boy’s Championships qualification (2014)
  • 4 * AFC U14 Girl’s Championship qualifications (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017)

Additionally they entered but withdrew from the 2015 AFC U16 Women’s Championship qualifiers, the 2018 AFC U19 Championship qualifiers and the 2019 AFC U19 Women’s Championship qualifiers. Lastly, they like to host Marianas Cup games against neighbours Guam when possible, often consisting of a friendly match or two between the youth national sides (such as U16 men or U19 women).

READ MORE: OFC confirms: Associate members to be included

With respect to competitiveness against AFC members, seeding means that most qualifiers won’t pit them against similar opposition. Additionally, with a population of around 60,000, they aren’t likely to have strong youth teams which make up the majority of their results. However, there are clear signs of improvement, with scorelines narrowing and their best results appearing as time goes on. Despite a vast funding difference (due largely to FIFA) they’ve been competitive with some teams at a number of levels. They have wins and draws against Guam and Macau, with narrow losses also coming against the likes of Brunei and Chinese Taipei. Macau have proven to be the best opposition, the women have a win and 2 draws from 3 games, with the men having a win and a draw from 5 games (both in the most recent 3 matches).

Women’s football is an important area for NMIFA. (Photo credit: Megan Aglipay/NMIFA Media)

Their national league has been a little sporadic at times but typically has men’s and women’s A and B divisions, with 4-6 teams in each. Since 2015, until the coronavirus pandemic, men’s leagues ran twice a year, excepting typhoon interference, while the women’s league only ran once annually. Enough of the population is localised to Saipan that there is not significant need to spread the league across all the islands. No NMI team has ever appeared in AFC competition for comparison with other AFC members.

Clearly AFC associate membership and EAFF membership has benefitted the NMIs enormously, providing both opportunities and funding to take advantage of them, despite the logistical problems caused by their distance to the rest of the confederation.

Tuvalu

Tuvalu posing ahead of their game against Szekely Land (Photo credit: Con Chronis)

Before associate membership Tuvalu had appeared at the 1979 and 2003 Pacific Games. In 1979 they beat Tonga 5-3 but were first annihilated 18-0 by Tahiti. This sent them into the placement matches where they drew 3-3 with Kiribati (winning 4-2 on penalties) before dropping 10-2 to New Caledonia. 2003 was less successful, with a 3-2 win over Kiribati being followed by 3 losses. However, they were much more stable, losing 1-0 to Vanuatu and 4-0 to both Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

READ MORE: Tuvalu: A nation’s struggle for footballing recognition

The OFC granted them associate membership at the 2006 congress and Tuvalu appeared in several tournaments after that. The 2007, 2011 and 2019 Pacific Games brought highlights in narrow losses, 1-1 draws with Tahiti, Guam and American Samoa as well as a 4-0 win over the latter. 2007 even doubled up as World Cup qualification, though Tuvalu were ineligible, making them the only team to have competed in World Cup qualifying without being a full member (or even close to) of either a confederation or FIFA. Additionally, the 2017 Pacific Mini Games brought a late 4-3 victory over Tonga and a surprise 2-1 win over New Caledonia’s U23s, placing them 4th from 6 teams.

Tuvalu goalkeeper Katepu Iosua makes a save at the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup in London (Photo credit: Con Chronis)

But none of these were truly OFC competitions. They have never participated (and claim to have not been invited) to any OFC competition in football, though have appeared in 3 OFC Futsal Championships (2008, 2010 and 2011). Across futsal they lost every game they played, coming to within 2 goals of Tahiti and 1 goal of fellow associates Kiribati. In terms of funding to make further appearance, the grants from the OFC come out at 16k NZD in 2008, 1.5k NZD in 2009 and 30k NZD in 2014. OFC funding was stated to have restarted in 2020, at the same rate of 30,000 NZD annually, and is set to continue across 2021 and 2022. Travel costs alone mean it is unlikely that this will be sufficient for further tournament appearances.

READ MORE: The Associate Members of OFC – 0:3 for football

In the OFC they’ve been competitive against their Polynesian brethren, being unbeaten against American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga (5 games, 4 wins) but having lost the only game they’ve played against the Cook Islands (4-1 in 2007). Their only other wins have been against the New Caledonia U23s and the Chagos Islands in CONIFA. Against the stronger and more populous OFC nations they’ve struggled, with highlights being 1-1 draws against Tahiti and Guam and 1-0 defeats to New Caledonia and Vanuatu. However, in recent times the gap has widened: their narrowest defeat at the 2019 Pacific Games was 7-0. They would be a strong preliminary round team, but uncompetitive beyond that.

Tahiti and Tuvalu clashed at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa, with the French territory coming out on top. (Photo credit: Richard Ewart)

Locally, Tuvalu’s national league has run annually across the last 2 decades, with a variety of teams involved (often between 6 and 10). Structure is variable, with multiple tournaments in some years, along with A and B divisions. Other tournaments include regional ones, rather than the usual club sides and the women’s division, though that is often smaller and less regular. These tournaments tend to depend on local sponsorship and have not been made more regular through OFC grants. No Tuvaluan club side has played in OFC competition to date.

Tuvalu have been at their most active across their associate membership tenure with 3 international tournaments in the past 3 years (including the 2018 CONIFA World Football Cup). Despite this consistent local and international activity, they haven’t appeared in OFC competition since 2011, with minimal grant money making this continue. TIFA have already confirmed that they cannot afford to send a team to the 2021 OFC Champions League, so it is hard to see this changing with associate membership alone.

Kiribati

One of the many games played in Kiribati at the Bairiki National Stadium with a large attendance (Photo credit: KIFA/CONIFA)

Much like Tuvalu, Kiribati exist on the fringes of the OFC, gaining associate membership in the 2007 congress. Prior to that they had appeared at the 1979 and 2003 Pacific Games (some sources claim that the 1979 squad were a club side) where, except for the penalties loss to Tuvalu, they lost every game and typically heavily. Unusually for a non-FIFA side, they also sent a women’s team to the 2003 games, performing better than the men’s side, though still losing every game. Narrow losses to Fiji (2-0) and to bronze medallists Tonga (2-1) were definite highlights, as was their equaliser in what proved to be a 5-1 loss to 4th place Tahiti. Moaniti Teuea was their goalscorer on both occasions.

READ MORE: Kiribati: Fighting for FIFA membership

Records show a 30,000 NZD annual grant between 2008-10 along with 2014-15. They received nothing further until the recent recognition by the OFC of their associate members in 2020. With their local league being harder to run than most FIFA members (the teams from Kiritimati have to travel 2,000 miles to get to play on Tarawa), their limited budget tends to be spent locally. Internationally, appearances since associate membership have been limited to two tournaments. In the 2011 Pacific Games the men’s team achieved their narrowest result against a FIFA member, losing 3-0 to the Cook Islands, but otherwise played strong OFC teams to predictable results. The 2011 OFC Futsal Championship brought a 3-2 win over Tuvalu in the placement matches but otherwise their closest result was a 9-2 loss to Vanuatu.

A penalty being taken. (Photo credit: KIFA/CONIFA)

Competitiveness is hard to judge with so few results. Given the popularity of the sport, it is easy to see them becoming a force in the preliminary qualifying rounds. Having only played 11 games, the results against Tuvalu and the Cook Islands are the most important, being competitive but not prevailing. Without a recent frame of reference, it is hard to tell, but they do not seem in shape to compete for the qualification spot from the preliminary round.

 

As mentioned, the i-Kiribati league is logistically complex due to Kiribati’s vast size. Every 2 years is about as regular as it has gotten, with local qualification for a finals event in Tarawa. Teams from the most far flung islands sometimes aren’t able to travel for the finals but otherwise the league does cover the whole country. It does not appear to have gotten more common or less with associate membership though. Women’s football is also active, although much harder to find information on. Lastly, with the recent invitation to the OFC Champions League and the grant situation, KIFF have formed a Kiribati Champions League of 20 sides and a Tarawa based futsal league.

Football being played in Kiribati. (Photo credit: KIFA/CONIFA)

Internationally Kiribati have not been very active across their associate membership, with minimal funding preventing their participation. Locally, it is only very recently that any significant difference in activity has occurred. However, as with Tuvalu, KIFF say that they are not financially able to send a team to the 2021 OFC Champions League despite the same resumption of the grants. While the grants appear to have funded local football, the inactivity on an international level is concerning, particularly given the OFC’s silence on full membership.

Conclusion

While associate membership for Tuvalu and Kiribati appears to have helped them be a little more active than they were before, in comparison to the NMIs their activity within their confederation has been extremely limited due to the comparable lack of funding. The ability of the NMIs to take part in AFC youth competitions has helped establish themselves much better in their confederation, something that the OFC have not offered across the past 14 years.

Overall, AFC associate membership appears much more powerful and the remaining Micronesian nations are likely to follow the two US territories towards the AFC, further limiting the OFC’s power. The NMIs join Australia, Guam and Timor-Leste as traditionally Oceanian nations playing in the AFC, continuing a dangerous precedent. If the OFC cannot attract Oceanian members then the calls to merge them with the AFC will grow.


You can follow the author of this article, Adam Beaumont, on Twitter here.

One thought

  1. OFC has failed big time. If Tuvalu and Kiribati join the AFC they will be better off like Northern Marianas and Guam. The latter having developed a lot through competetive matches with stronger AFC opposition.

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