In the middle of the Pacific, straddling the equator and punching a hole in the International Date Line, lies one of the planet’s more enigmatic countries: Kiribati. It is a vibrant country, passionate about the round-ball game, and completely ignored by FIFA.
Kiribati’s (pronounced ‘Kiribis’) footballers are strung across 33 atolls covering 3.5 million square kilometres of ocean.
Almost half of the country’s 103,000 inhabitants reside cheek-by-jowl on South Tarawa, the nation’s capital. The country has precious few resources beyond fishing, making Kiribati the poorest nation in the Pacific.
Yet despite the disadvantages, Kiribati is a determined country, with incredibly warm and accepting locals, and they love football.
In gaps between houses, in small open areas of packed coral dust beside roads and between coconut palms, football is played apace. Both boys and girls practice the game, developing solid technical skills in the confined spaces they are afforded.
The Kiribati Island Football Association (KIFA) is in charge of developing the game in the country. They have practically no resources (all members are volunteers) and little external support. Kiribati is only an associate member of the Oceania Football Confederation and has been unable to attain FIFA membership.
The love of the game is palpable. Over 60 teams participated in last year’s tournament, funded by Taiwan, and on each of the 33 islands tournaments are currently afoot as teams seek the honour of being their island’s representative for the national cup to be held later this year.
The logistics of organising such an undertaking are enormous, yet committed volunteers across the country make it possible. Some government funding will be available for the transport of finalists by ship to Tarawa (the Christmas Island team will spend over two weeks at sea each way) but accommodation will be with relatives and friends, on boats and in maneabas (open, communal huts). No flights nor hotels for these hardy souls.
The absence of soil in the country means that the three full-sized pitches on Tarawa have no grass. Football grounds consist of hard, packed coral dust and players predominantly are bare foot. This isn’t a place for the delicate.
The lack of grounds and the absence of grass pitches results in footballers with wonderful ball control but an inability to defend; sliding tackles and blocks do not happen, goalkeepers cannot dive. When the national team play, they have inevitably been hammered due to these deficiencies.
[latest_videos_strip category=”football” name=”Football”]
But things are changing. KIFA have a new strategic plan looking to develop football without the funding from FIFA that almost every other nation, and several non-nations, enjoy.
Despite being financially bereft, a men’s, women’s and youth league are being formulated with an eye to establishing a self-sustaining league on South Tarawa, kicking off in 2018. Coach and referee training from impassioned self-funded foreigners who provide their own time to assist this impoverished nation is being explored.
Despite these positive developments, funding would vastly change the landscape. An artificial pitch and formal coach and referee training would transform the game. Kiribati playing in national tournaments would foster pride and international recognition in a country that craves such.
So why is Kiribati being ignored?
The OFC, and UEFA for that matter, have a number of members with lower populations, fewer footballers and far less interest in the game.
One reason has been the lack of structure around Kiribati football, though this is changing with new leagues and accompanying policies. Another is a lack of infrastructure, though in a nation with as little land and resources as Kiribati it is hard to see that changing without external support.
Kiribati’s main issue is that it is neither economically nor politically important enough to pique the interest of FIFA. Unlike Faroe Islands and Cook Islands, Kiribati has no political patron to champion its cause. Unlike Liechtenstein or San Marino, Kiribati has no resident companies that would make potential FIFA sponsors.
KIFA has joined the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) in a bid to find support for football development. While CONIFA has been able to provide some guidance, their resources are limited.
The OFC currently has no Micronesian members, only Polynesian (including New Zealand) and Melanesian members. Indeed, the only Micronesian member of FIFA is Guam, a territory of the USA. None of Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia or Palau are FIFA members, though of these only Kiribati is bathed in football.
The addition of Kiribati to the OFC would broaden the base of a confederation that struggles among its significantly larger counterparts. It would also provide a stronger football voice in a membership which includes a number of countries dominated by rugby.
At a time when FIFA President Gianni Infantino is working to convince the world that the organisation is moving away from its troubled, self-entitled past and towards inclusivity, he would do well to direct attention to those most in need of FIFA’s support.
Supporting the passionate footballers of Kiribati would be a good start.