Written by: Alun Macer-Wright
With over 15,000km separating London and Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, the Pacific Island nation have by far the longest distance to travel to this summer’s CONIFA World Football Cup.
Tuvalu are the only representative team of a United Nations member state competing in London this summer. Tuvaluans are spread out across a combination of reef islands and atolls, and numbered a little over 10,000 at the 2012 census. To put in perspective, that is 25 times fewer people than the London borough of Haringey, where they play their first match.
The Polynesians come to England with high hopes. Soseala Tinilau, President of the Tuvalu Islands Football Association said: “My hope is for Tuvalu to compete at a highest level and be able to make it to the final four. But who knows, anything can happen in football.”
Tuvalu only stepped in to take their place in the London line-up in March, when fellow Pacific Islanders Kiribati were forced to pull out, citing financial difficulties.
The nation is an associate member of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) but have had their hopes of joining FIFA dashed in recent years. They regularly compete against other Pacific teams, and recorded impressive 2-1 and 4-3 victories against New Caledonia and Tonga respectively, at the 2017 Pacific Mini Games.
Tinilau recognised the challenges that the long-distance travel had posed, but spoke of the nation coming together to help the team. “It is a huge challenge especially when you are far away from London. We have worked so hard to do fundraising to purchase our airfares with great assistance from the Government as well as local businesses, communities, sports organizations and individuals,” he said.
Tuvalu spent most of the last century as a British colony, under the guise of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, only gaining its independence in 1976. It is a member of the Commonwealth, so the CONIFA appearance will cap an exciting few months in sport, after the nation sent seven athletes to the slightly less far-flung Gold Coast for this year’s Commonwealth Games.
In terms of players for fans to watch out for, Tinilau said: “Our star men consist of Alopua Petoa (Tuvalu top scorer in international matches), Okilani Tinilau and Matti Hoffren Uaelesi.”
The Tuvaluans will come into this summer’s games with one warm-up fixture under their belts, against a Suva club team. Tinilau said this would test his squad’s preparation.
With senior major tournament appearances for teams from Oceania at a premium, opportunities such as this for offer a unique chance to develop football in the region. Tuvalu will be hoping to grab it with both hands.