Monday 25 March 2024, 13:00

Women’s game on the rise in Oceania’s football hotbed

  • Second edition of the OFC Women’s Champions League successfully held

  • Football is hugely popular in host nation Solomon Islands

  • SIFF are focussing on capacity-building for women’s football

Football is something of a religion in Solomon Islands. If that sounds like a simple cliché, consider this: The Lawson Tama Stadium in the capitol Honiara regularly draws five-figure crowds for major matches, despite a population of only around 100,000 living within close proximity on the island of Guadalcanal where the venue is situated. Measured as a percentage of the local population, it is a statistic that few countries in the world could match. Women’s football offers a major opening for even further growth and it is an opportunity the Solomon Islands Football Federation [SIFF] are keen to develop. “We need to underline our commitment to women’s football not only locally, but also internationally,” said SIFF President Donald Marahare. “The base of players is going to expand with development programmes and with the new leagues we’re planning we can have a continuous cycle of elite players.” All the signs are that Solomon Islands are primed to make a real impact. On the back of a breakthrough runners-up finish at the recent Women’s Olympic Football Tournament – Oceania Qualifier, the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking saw the Melanesian nation enjoy the rare feat of being the world’s biggest mover across the entire globe. Having also successfully hosted the quadrennial multi-sport Pacific Games late last year, Solomon Islands was an ideal location for OFC Women’s Champions League, which concluded on Saturday.

While Solomon Islands are enjoying a growth surge, the same could be said across the Pacific. This month’s second edition of the OFC Women’s Champions League saw an increase to eight teams, up three from last year’s maiden iteration in New Caledonia. Streamed live on FIFA+, the tournament concluded with Auckland United relying on a lone first-half strike from Bree Johnson to edge Hekari United, with the Papua New Guinea champions picking up a second successive runners-up finish. Defending continental champions AS Academy Féminine’s exit ahead of the knockout stage - and a succession of tight matches - underscores a heightened level of competiveness in the region.

Auckland United celebrate winning the OFC Women's Champions League final

Local representatives Henderson Eels fell short of the semi-finals but did pick up a victory over Cook Islands’ Avatiu. With a name made famous by an historic airfield located nearby, Henderson Field, the Eels participated as champions of the nascent women’s national league. Formed only in 2020, the league has already expanded by one club with further growth planned. SIFF’s stated aim in 2020 was to move up the Oceania rankings. It is one of several of the federation’s goals achieved on the back of the platform built by the national league. “The strong showing by the women’s team in the recent OFC Olympic Qualifiers is an important moment for women’s football here overall,” added Marahare. “Of course, in spectator numbers, the women’s league is building its own fan base. While it is a far cry from men’s football, it is encouraging to see what is happening.

Solomon Islands' Henderson Eels at the 2024 OFC Women's Champions League

“It is interesting to see how the [2023] FIFA Women’s World Cup was viewed by a lot of men here. I think this is where the hidden impact is going to happen, especially with changing attitudes and stereotypes about sports and the participation of women. “From a purely, anecdotal perspective, I think the impact of the Women’s World Cup in Solomon Islands is significant, however, its full impact will be fully realised as time goes along. Listening to men discussing the Women’s World Cup is a new experience, and shows a gradual, but firm, acceptance of women playing football in our communities.”

The expanded second edition of the annual tournament underscores FIFA’s development work which has allowed women’s club competitions in the region to expand rapidly. Three main FIFA programmes have aided this growth: the Women’s Football Development Programme (specific initiatives have raised awareness and capacity building); the Covid-19 Relief Plan (monies used to strengthen national competitions) and FIFA Forward (similarly some funds used to strengthen the local competition).

Solomon Islands received USD 500,000 under the Covid-19 Relief Plan and used it to revamp and strengthen their women’s premier league and futsal league, as well as international engagements for 2020-2022. They have also been approved for funding under the FIFA Women’s Development Programme for strategy, campaign, and league development.

Solomon Islands celebrate getting through to the final

Sanjeevan Balasingam, Director Member Associations Asia & Oceania, said: “The OFC Women’s Champions League is a key driver of the women’s game in Oceania. It continues to provide a platform for players and administrators alike to build capacity at club level with such benefits also accruing for national team programmes. “There is of course, the added value of increased exposure to fans and football stakeholders. Many member associations (MAs) have enjoyed a marked increase in participation numbers following on from the highly successful FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023. The Women’s Football Development Programme has ensured investment in critical areas that drive the game, with tailored support per MA. “MAs benefitted immensely from the Covid-19 Relief Plan, maintaining operational capacities during the pandemic to ensure that the impact on the women’s game would be minimal. In turn, the 30 per cent increase in available funding via the FIFA Forward Development Programme for 2023-2026 will enable MAs to continue to tailor their support mechanisms to ensure the women’s game continues to thrive.”

Solomon Islands