Wednesday 01 March 2023, 13:00

Model association Tonga sets sail for greater goals

  • Tonga FA’s headquarters were used as shelter by locals during last year’s volcanic eruption

  • FIFA Forward funded TFA structures are built with natural disaster protection in mind

  • The TFA’s stability and growth over the past decade are a template for smaller associations

Just over a year ago, Tonga experienced its most terrifying natural disaster. The Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai volcanic episode is considered to be the most powerful such event in the world since the history-book defining 1883 Krakatoa eruption. Ash and sediment rained down on Tonga’s main island Tongatapu as the summer afternoon skyline “became like midnight”. To this day, a heavy dusting of ash is still found on Tonga’s otherwise verdant terrain. The sheer size of the volcanic eruption may have been rare, but so too local football’s unique hands-on involvement in helping the populace was atypical. Many raced to the Tonga Football Association [TFA] headquarters - the FIFA-funded building is one of the most stable in the Kingdom and also offers facilities to temporarily house. The Vava'u Technical Centre, also used during the disaster, was fully funded by FIFA Forward Funds.

Tonga FA headquarters, Tongatapu

With Tonga facing a fierce annual cyclone season, the facilities – and soon to be completed new projects – are constructed with natural disaster resilience and recovery in mind. Such forward thinking is characteristic of the TFA, a Member Association [MA] that has become notable for its stability and progress. The TFA have become emblematic of what a small MA can achieve, despite limited resources. “Tonga Football Association are a great example of a member association that maximise the resources available to them to both progress football in the country, and also to provide support to their communities,” said Tony Readings, FIFA Regional Technical Consultant, Oceania. “The stability of people in key leadership positions and strong internal alignment enables Tonga Football Association to work collaboratively with FIFA and OFC to enhance football development and also increase the number and quality of football facilities on the different islands within the country.”

Tonga FA headquarters, Tongatapu.

The TFA’s headquarters will soon be home to a 500-seat stadium which would be the second biggest outdoor venue in the Kingdom. Only the government-owned national stadium is larger. At the other end of the football ecosystem, the game has truly taken hold over the past decade to become the No1 sport in local schools. It is a major accomplishment for a nation where Rugby has long been the undisputed national sport. Historically local football has faced challenges unimaginable in some nations. Tonga hosted Round 1 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers in August 2015 which, incredibly, was the first time the national team had played a World Cup match in front of home fans since 1999. However, the list of achievements has grown exponentially during the past decade under the guidance of TFA General Secretary Lui Aho and President Lord Veehala. Similarly, most of the key staff have remained unchanged in that time, including local football icon Kilifi Uele in an extraordinary ongoing 18-year tenure as Technical Director.

Tonga FA, Vava’u facility

It is, as Aho states, a pivotal reason for the TFA’s stability. “There is no staff turnover, when they come, they stay,” he says, underlining the quality of recruitment and positive work environment at the association. “Most of the staff have received significant training through OFC and FIFA. We encourage their development and I think they enjoy what they do. We are very stable here and that is a major positive. “In almost every village across the country football is played at grassroots level. Emphasis used to be on seniors and now it is also on the grassroots.” Tonga’s list of recent off-field achievements is hugely impressive for a small nation of around 100,000 inhabitants, one that is also hindered by its sheer size – its three main island groups are spread over nearly 800 kilometres.

Additional new facilities in the last decade are a conference hall, gymnasium, more pitches, futsal courts, and more. The island of Vava’u previously only featured schools football, but that has changed with the opening of a new FIFA Forward-funded facility and pitch on Tonga’s second biggest island. Planning is now underway to build a similar facility at Ha'apai, the third largest population island group. The Ha’apai Project was strategically designated for that region of Tonga because the inhabitants on the island predominantly play beach soccer. As a result Tonga fielded a team at the 2019 OFC Beach Soccer Nations Cup, their first qualification campaign for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup™ – another milestone moment for the Polynesian nation. Tonga will also participate in this year’s qualifiers for the 2023 tournament in the United Arab Emirates further underlining their growth and stability. Late last year Tonga also became the first OFC nation to participate in FIFA’s Football for Schools programme. Returning FIFA Legend Yakubu Ayegbeni said Tonga “was like my second home” during his visit last year, a trip which also supported the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on Climate Change between FIFA and the Pacific Islands Forum. For a Nigerian footballer who has played in numerous countries across the globe, it was a comment that provided a fitting insight into Polynesian warmth and hospitality.

In a nation where the potential for natural disasters are significant, the TFA and its home of football has become a beacon and sign of strength for the local community in Tonga. “The Tonga Football Association is strategically located in the middle [of Tongatapu] being a bit far off from the coastal areas which is vulnerable to natural disasters,” Aho said. “We have a lot of land here available to us as well. Currently we have facilities prescribed for a natural disaster centre. “People sheltered here, but not only that they felt the comfort of being looked after here and being together as one family. The TFA’s buildings are a safe haven.”

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