Monday 01 July 2024, 08:20

Milestone tournament delivered in Vanuatu with the help of FIFA Forward

  • New FIFA Forward-funded stadium in Port Vila hosts first major tournament

  • Venue built with focus on sustainability, accessibility and resilience to climate change

  • Capacity crowds cheer Vanuatu all the way to maiden continental final

The UEFA EURO and CONMEBOL Copa America might be grabbing the attention of many football fans across the world at the moment, but a third continental title took place this month with equal fervour on display. The OFC Nations Cup may not enjoy as many headlines as other continental championships but the football fans of tournament co-hosts Vanuatu have proven themselves as passionate as any in the world. Fifty-one years since the maiden edition, the Vanuatu Football Federation (VFF) are finally hosting a full edition of the tournament for the first time with capacity crowds filling the sparkling new VFF Freshwater Stadium in Port Vila. Melanesian neighbours Fiji hosted the second group in the seven-nation tournament with the knockout matches held in Vanuatu. This much-anticipated opportunity for Vanuatu has been delivered with the support of FIFA. The world governing body’s FIFA Forward programme funded the stadium with the aid of USD 4.15 million, a financial boost that has allowed Vanuatu the opportunity for a milestone event in the nation’s sporting history. Local football fans have made the most of the occasion, filling the 6,500-capacity stadium for all four of Vanuatu’s matches.

Vanuatu celebrate a goal at Freshwater Stadium, Port Vila, Vanuatu during the 2024 OFC Nations Cup

Up to 10,000 fans headed to the venue for the opening-day 1-0 win over Solomon Islands, while thousands more packed every patch of grass outside the venue simply to enjoy a small taste of the historic day. It is a remarkable figure given it equates to around one in 10 inhabitants of the island (Efate) descending on the football hub. It is not just the volume of fans but the raw joy and enthusiasm displayed by those in attendance that marks out football in Vanuatu as something special. Hosting the continental tournament is the latest in a series of developments that underline a recent rapid growth for Vanuatu. The national team was one of three OFC nations to feature in the recent inaugural FIFA Series™. Brian Kaltak became the first Pacific Islands’ player to win an A-League championship in 2023, and the national team captain proved that was no fluke by repeating the feat in May with his Central Coast Mariners side. The Teouma Academy was renamed the Brian Kaltak Academy last year during FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s visit with the VFF hoping to produce a host of young players following in Kaltak’s footsteps.

Federation President Lambert Maltock says owning the new facility has not only been a long-held dream, but means the VFF will no longer lose money paying rent. “I'm really happy with the outcome of the stadium, it's really good,” said Maltock, a FIFA Council member and current OFC President. “People are really happy when they come and see the competitions there. “The attendances have been really good. In fact, we don't just have enough space to accommodate our spectators. But now we can say that we own a stadium, and we have very big potential to raise local revenues to help sustain our development program.”

The scope of works included 1,500 covered seats, a natural grass pitch, office spaces, floodlights, conference spaces, changing rooms, competition spaces and a car park, while there are future plans for capacity expansion and the development of a gymnasium for further revenue generation. Notably, the upgraded venue was completed with sustainability, accessibility and resilience to climate change all factored into the design. The latter is particularly significant in the Pacific and was a focus at the recent FIFA Infrastructure & Facilities Maintenance Workshop in Papua New Guinea.

An aerial view of Erakor island and the coastline of Port Vila, Vanuatu

“We are prone to natural disasters every year, and this is why we designed our stadiums to be resilient,” added Maltock. “The infrastructure is really well designed to stand against cyclones. “We also have solar. We have an underground well and if ever there is a dry season, it's enough to sustain the maintenance of the grass throughout the year. “It's one of the first projects that is really comprehensive. It's small, but comprehensive and caters for all forms of needs of spectators. It is a model venue. “I'm sure that this concept of a stadium will now be replicated elsewhere in OFC. We're really happy with what FIFA is doing for us.”

FIFA Vice-President and OFC President Lambert Maltock

Vanuatu finished as runners-up after losing 3-0 to New Zealand in the final. But featuring in the decider was another new high for Vanuatu who had never progressed beyond the semi-final stage before. Vanuatu will have another opportunity to show off their new facility with 2026 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers on the horizon later this year, as well as staging OFC U-19 Men’s Championship qualifying. Incredibly it will be their first World Cup qualifier at home since 2008 - another positive by-product of the new facility. Solomon Islands and their storied Lawson Tama Stadium have long been the yardstick to measure football passion in the Pacific, but there is now a new contender.