With Tuvalu finally on their way back to their isolated island home after a mammoth three month tour, there is time to reflect on just what has been achieved.
There has been an incredible experience for all the players, even the handful who live in New Zealand, such as Sapetaoi Nokisi, who took a year out of his degree in economics to go the tour. At each of the many stops on the tour, organiser Paul Driessen would take the Tuvaluans into schools and do a presentation about global warming. The schoolchildren would then get to ask questions about Tuvalu, which Nokisi answered.
At least he started and finished what was an emotionally experience tour. “It’s quite hard being away from home for so long, emotionally to be away for your family. There was supposed to be five Tuvaluans from New Zealand on the tour but only three could come.”
Captain Etimoni ‘Reme’ Timuani (below centre, wearing armband) had to go home mid-way through as his employers wanted him back at work and that illustrated a weakness in the tour. Some of the best players had jobs and could not get time off work, notably the regular goalkeeper.
No more than half a dozen of the Tuvalu tourists will be recommended by Leen Looyen, the former NAC Breda manager who coached Tuvalu while in Holland, for the squad for the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea. Nokisi, an industrious midfielder, will be one. Timuani after his performances will almost certainly go to his second island games having taken part in the last tournament in New Caledonia.
Alopua Petoa, who was on his second visit to Holland having played for three months VV Brabantia previously, will also go, but three quarters of the squad are unlikely to be on what will most likely be the next trip abroad by Tuvalu’s footballers.
The age of the players in the squad ran from 16 to 30 and for the youngest players like Nelesone Musika, the trip was a first away from home. To cut costs, players spent three days on a boat to Fiji before flying to Amsterdam via Hong Kong. The trip took five days.
The exposure to a different level of football will almost certainly help the depth of football in Tuvalu but probably not the national team, but still offered some incredible experiences for players from an isolated island nation, such as seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls in Assen (below).
The efforts of Driessen in organising the tour cannot be underestimated. The tour was sponsored by Dutch councils and amateur clubs. The true cost, Driessen estimates, is close to €200,000, which is money that the Tuvalu National Football Association (TNFA) simply do not have. That is because, for all the efforts of raising Tuvalu’s profile and highlighting global warming, the TNFA remains an associate member of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and that looks unlike to change in the short-term.
An OFC spokesman explained: “In accordance with FIFA Regulations and Statutes, which have changed, Tuvalu must be a member of the Confederation first and then can apply for FIFA membership. Although they are an associate member of OFC, they still not do satisfy the minimum requirements for FIFA membership like international stadium, training grounds, hotel and transportation to host international matches and tournaments.
“In addition they need to improve the football infrastructure (Technical, Administration, National Leagues, etc) within Tuvalu to bring it to a required level for FIFA to accept them as a member of FIFA. As you will appreciate the criteria for the UN is vastly different to the criteria for FIFA membership.
"The key challenge it would appear is bringing their capacities up in the key areas. That is not always easy to achieve in the Pacific due to a variety of factors such as finance, geography, etc. Tuvalu, like nations such as the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Cook Islands and Tahiti is geographically fragmented.
“Some Pacific nations have been able to overcome issues of infrastructure through agreements with non-Government and Government organisations outside of the OFC. EU, AusAID, UN. UNESCO, Taiwan Government, the French Government, to name but a few, have contributed to all sorts of projects to lift infrastructure right across the Pacific.”
The most obvious place to secure that sort of investment though is almost certainly FIFA, whose Small Nations Working Group visited the island in 2010. Despite that visit, full membership of the OFC let alone FIFA seems no closer.
To be fair to FIFA, the world body has had governance problems at some Pacific nations in the past. Samoa was suspended by FIFA in 2008 for ‘repeated management problems’. Football Federation Samoa was subsequently taken over by world body representatives, including David Brand and Colin Tuaa, who helped the ‘normalise’ the FFS gain readmission for Samoa.
Only last month, FIFA and the OFC stepped in to ‘normalise’ football in another Oceania member, the Solomon Islands. What both bodies will want to see is some form of plan on how the TNFA would spend the U$D 250,000 a year that full membership of the world body brings.
Priorities in Tuvalu, like many other Pacific nations, are not always the same as in other more developed nations. Recently, hundreds of thousands of Australian dollars was reportedly spent building not much needed new educational or healthcare facilities but a new church.
Right now, apart from an amazing personal experience and a chance to improve skills at all levels of football in Tuvalu, the TNFA are no closer to full membership of the OFC or FIFA.
A FIFA spokesman says: “In 2010, the FIFA Small Associations Working Group categorized Tuvalu as an “Independent State but not member of FIFA”. As such, it would have priority in receiving assistance for football development from FIFA. However, it was clearly stressed that such assistance should not be considered as a first step towards becoming a FIFA member. Assistance could include participation in technical and educational programmes as well as seminars.
“FIFA has provided Tuvalu with all of the information on the requirements to become its member. Previous requests to FIFA by the Tuvalu football representatives some years ago did not include all of the required information and documentation, so the admission procedure was never properly fulfilled at that time. The association was informed that any FIFA membership application procedure it wished to submit would have to be re-started.
“Additionally and in view that one of the essential conditions to become a member of FIFA is to first become a member of the relevant confederation (in the case of Tuvalu that would be the Oceania Football Confederation/OFC), Tuvalu was advised by FIFA to contact the OFC. The OFC could be contacted for further information regarding to the present matter.”
So Tuvalu's footballers have travelled across the world to play and dance, but cannot solve the conundrum put to them by OFC and FIFA of the chicken and egg, or more pointedly football, money and influence.
**To listen to a short radio feature on Tuvalu's European tour including interviews with Paul Driessen, Leen Looyen and some of the Tuvalu players, go to the BBC's World Football's podcast here and fast forward to 13 minutes.