After seven years in the making, it was only fitting that the Goal project inauguration for the Cook Islands Football Association (CIFA) was celebrated in style, with colour and Pacific culture dominating the proceedings.
Youthful and vibrant young Cook Islanders leapt onto the magnificent lush green football pitch accompanied by thunderous drum beats to join in the celebrations. Dwarfed by the peaks of majestic volcanic mountains, the bare-bellied and bare-shouldered female dancers simultaneously swayed their hips to the drum beats while the men, in colourful purple headwear, accompanied them.
From a royal envoy and political dignitaries including the country's Prime Minister to young football enthusiasts, everyone came out for the festivities and bathed in the natural brilliance of the paradise-like surroundings. Four poles bearing flags of FIFA, Fair Play, Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and Cook Islands Football Association (CIFA) fluttered in the wind with tropical palm trees as their backdrop.
The formalities commenced in the customary manner with an opening prayer before CIFA President Lee Harmon welcomed the distinguished guests. In a stirring speech, President Harmon said the inauguration was perhaps the most momentous occasion for Cook Islands to date since the country gained FIFA recognition in 1994.
"This inauguration dawns a new day for the Cook Islands, a new day for our people and for football," he said. "These facilities will give our young people, the opportunity to achieve their full potential at national and international levels - it really is a 'field of dreams'."
President Harmon expressed his deepest thanks to FIFA for their generosity and support. "This inauguration marks the second and third phases of the Goal Programme introduced by FIFA in 1999 as an initiative of the FIFA President, Joseph S. Blatter, aimed at elevating national football associations around the globe".
"Although CIFA has not yet hosted any major international tournament, our existence has brought into the country over 12 million dollars in the last nine years. As you can see, football is just not a sport, it helps the economy and is a tool to build better and stronger communities as we are able to implement development programmes and activities."
Reynald Temarii, FIFA Vice President and OFC President, opened his address by mentioning that his presence in Rarotonga was also as the proud representative of Joseph S. Blatter, who conveyed congratulations to the Cook Islands' 'football family' for reaching this 'milestone' moment in their football history. Temarii expressed his personal appreciation to CIFA for "their tireless efforts to see the project through from infancy to completion".
"These objectives were shared to me by the CIFA President, Lee Harmon when we met 12 years ago for the first time in Auckland, as young presidents in the Oceania Confederation. He did not stop, and with the support of a very committed Executive Committee together, they have been achieved," he said." "Congratulations," Temarii added emphatically, to much applause from the assembled guests.
"Here (in the Cook Islands), eight per cent of your people play football. CIFA has 1,200 registered players out of the 15,000 population. This is a great achievement when compared to the statistics of other countries".
Cook Islands Prime Minister, the Honourable Jim Marurai, was also on hand as the 'keynote' speaker to explain what the football facilities meant to such a proud sporting nation. "I congratulate CIFA and its development partners for realising this outstanding football complex. This is not the end of the road with continuing support, activities, education courses and other essential resources so I am honoured to be here to witness the occasion and also to officially open the facilities with the FIFA Vice-President".
Then followed the unveiling of the plaque, the blessing by Pastor Eliu Eliu and the ceremonial cutting of banana leaves before guests enjoyed a tour of the various facilities.
FIFA Development Officer for the Oceania region Glenn Turner was full of praise for the CIFA officials, the local contractors and partners who "worked together harmoniously to achieve the ambitious vision of creating a truly unique 'House of Football' to embrace and welcome families and provide memorable football experiences for now and long into the future".
From humble beginnings
The official ground-breaking on what is now the ‘Home of Football' took place on 16 April 2003. With coastal land scarce and traditionally owned by families and handed down through generations, officials had spent an exhaustive two years securing the low-lying plot of land and several subsequent months implementing underground irrigation and drainage systems.
Less than a year later on 2 April 2004, the doors of CIFA's new home were flung open. The Cook Islands football community finally had a centralised facility, an important step for a country made up of island groups scattered as far as 1200km from Rarotonga.
CIFA's administrative offices were integrated into the new building and the association duly stepped up their activities, especially in the area of development. Cook Islands may be one of FIFA's smallest member associations with a mere 15,000 inhabitants, but it has an impressive track record of development programmes in a variety of areas including junior, youth and women's football, as well as coaching and refereeing.
With the completion of Goal III, the complex now has dressing rooms for players and officials, a spectator tribune with covered seating for 500 people as well as media rooms and PA capabilities.
All told, this complex is the football epicentre for the tiny Southern Pacific jewel. And in a country known as one of the most idyllic places in the world, it is only fitting there is now a picturesque home for 'the beautiful game.'