For some, a position of 166 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, as recently achieved by Cook Islands, might seem modest. But, of course, context is everything in world football.
For Cook Islands their latest landmark achievement is in fact remarkable. They now sit fourth in the global ranking among the Oceania Football Confederation’s 11 Member Associations, with a best-ever position that surpasses their previous high of 170 achieved in 2000, in the wake of that year’s Oceania Nations Cup.
The context for the Cooks comes in their population, geography and resources. Based in Oceania’s remote eastern edge, even a visit to nearest neighbours Tahiti involves great expense and a journey via New Zealand on the other side of the region. Their population numbers just 15,000, spread over an area that would cover much of western Europe. Only in the Caribbean are there FIFA members with smaller national populations.
Cook Islands coach Drew Sherman’s stated aim heading into last month’s opening of Oceania 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers was to win the four-nation tournament. It was quite an ambition given the Cook Islands had not won a single World Cup qualifier against a FIFA member in five previous campaigns, let alone progressed to stage two.
Yet within 48 hours of opening the tournament Sherman’s side had wins in the bag against hosts Tonga, and perennial regional kings Samoa. A seemingly impossible goal was suddenly realistic. The football fairytale, however, often remains unfulfilled. They lost their final match to American Samoa, and, rare though it may be to have three out of four teams secure two wins apiece, Cook Islands were left to suffer a hugely unlucky elimination on goal difference as Samoa progressed.
There were other milestones too. Attacker Taylor Saghabi scored four goals in the first two matches and for a brief moment a Cook Islander was on top of the world. Saghabi’s goals put him alongside India’s Sunil Chhetri as the globe’s joint leading goalscorer during Russia 2018 qualifying, only to be usurped by Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Al-Sahlawi later that same day. The Sydney-based Saghabi was one of several players from Australia and New Zealand that are part of Cook Islands’ diaspora who Sherman scouted and ultimately called upon.
Building for success
The pain of narrow elimination in Tonga will eventually dissipate for Cook Islands, who can now build on the achievements having laid the platform for future growth. Sherman, who also doubles as the nation’s technical director, says local footballers are extremely coachable. It is a fact borne out in the achievements of the side last month, following a few short months of preparation.
“The (Cook Islands) players are very happy people and willing to learn and develop,” Sherman said. “They'll do almost anything that you ask them to do.”
Sherman, a 28-year-old Welsh coach with an impressive resume which defies his tender years, has made a major difference in a short space of time. Finding further matches and meaningful competition is now one of the tasks at hand. So while the challenge is to maintain an upward trajectory, it does seem that one of the globe’s smallest nations is well placed to continue punching above its weight.