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Cook Islands looking abroad to inspire a football revolution

Friday 18 August 2023 | Written by RNZ | Published in Soccer, Sports


Cook Islands looking abroad  to inspire a football revolution
Cook Islands players celebrate after qualifying for the OFC Under 20 Championship. Photo: Oceania Football/ 23081807

The Cook Islands Football Association (CIFA) is looking to use a method more popular in the country’s national sport in order to improve the results and appeal of their men’s and women’s national teams.

The nation’s football governing body is on a worldwide hunt for talented footballers of Cook Islands heritage. The aim being to step away from their minnow status in the Oceania Football Confederation and develop a long-term football legacy on the archipelago.

Rugby league is the Cook Islands’ national game and it was in that sport's men's World Cup last year that Samoa reached a momentous final. They did so with a team made up largely of heritage players from Australia and New Zealand.

A common practice in both rugby codes, it is less common in football. However, the Philippines effectively knocked New Zealand out of the Women's World Cup with a team of mostly US-born Filipino-heritage players.

It's the potential for similar underdog success which has led to adverts being placed on Instagram and Facebook asking talented football players of Cook Islands descent to register their interest in representing the country of their parent's or grandparent's birth.

Jess Ibrom was appointed National Academy Director for CIFA in June. He immediately enlisted the help of scouting team Alastair MacLae and Russ Burr. They previously worked together in similar roles at the Samoa Football Federation, developing an invigorated talent pool in both the men's and women's space.

The results were perhaps best noticed in Samoa's third-place finish at the OFC U-19s Women's Championship in July. The team had a 73 per cent make-up of players scouted from overseas.

In the Cook Islands, the system is already yielding positive results, with the nation beating the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu en route to a semi-final berth at the same U-19 championship.

“We employ cutting-edge international scouting methods and strategies which we have developed ourselves and have spent years perfecting, whilst ensuring we foster strong connections with Cook Islands communities around the world," MacLae explained.

“We have experienced significant success thus far, discovering dozens of promising eligible new players. The enthusiastic response from the playing community has been truly impressive.”

Some of the new arrivals predate the current recruitment regime's arrival. Ben Mata is a shining example.

A former New Zealand youth international, he recently helped Wellington Olympic to a third-straight New Zealand Central League triumph. He captained the Cook Islands in their March 2022 World Cup qualifier against Solomon Islands and is exactly the sort of player that CIFA is trying to attract.

“Switching football associations is a process we are very experienced in and follow a simple process to achieve,” said Burr.

“Discussing with interested players to switch and play international football for the Cook Islands opens up opportunities for players whose current international career might have slowed or stopped.

“We have found with previous players who have switched that playing for the nation of their heritage and gaining a deeper understanding of that culture is a huge motivation and a proud moment for them and their family.

“Ben is a great leader and a prolific goal-scorer and is certainly an inspiration for other Cook Island heritage players to potentially follow.”

Ben's brother Max, an All-Whites striker who recently joined English Football League side Shrewsbury Town, also remains eligible to switch at present. MacLae said CIFA is ready to talk to all potential new players interested in switching or declaring allegiance.

In the past, New Zealand-born players such as Thea Keith and Harlem Simiona have played internationally for the Cook Islands.

Influx will boost local game

However, the potential influx of players nurtured in New Zealand and Australia's more sophisticated and challenging system is not universally accepted. Some critics suggest it may have a counterintuitive impact on the development of players in the Cook Islands itself.

That this overseas treasure chest of talent may prevent the unearthing of domestic-based gems in Avarua, Nikao and Arorangi.

MacLae, however, disagrees, saying: “It's quite the opposite.”

“Bringing in players with different technical, tactical experience will only bring up the domestic standards.

“We also want to find aspirational players to motivate future Cook Island generations and increase football participation on the island and even through worldwide Cook Island communities," he said.

“We also find that after overseas players attend OFC competitions, the Pacific culture and heritage is then taken back to the worldwide community bases.”

The hope is for more professionalised, organised and successful Cook Islands men's and women's senior teams. The men's team went three years unranked by FIFA after a seven-year gap between 2015 and 2022 without a single international fixture. It's hoped a strong and sustainable talent pool will help prevent a repeat act.

“Sustainability is the number one priority, evolving the overseas ID Talent processes and systems we put in place with a view to long-term improvements through results and overall rankings,” said Burr.

“We want to set them up for the future and therefore our goal is not only to identify eligible players but to also support participation within Cook Island communities around the world.

“The hope is that this would be achieved by offering an exciting pathway for young players, who themselves can ultimately become role models and aspirational figures for younger generations.”

The Cook Islands men's team are scheduled to take on Tahiti in September, in preparation for November's Pacific Games in Solomon Islands. Fans will be keeping an eye out for any new faces among the Soka Kuki Airani.