Many nations consider football to be far and away their number one sport, and the Solomon Islands are among those who can confidently make that claim. Football in the Oceanian nation reigns supreme and that has been borne out on numerous occasions, not only at international level, but also in both Beach Soccer and Futsal, where the Solomons have achieved more than any country in the region.
Crowds at the Lawson Tama stadium in the capital Honiara regularly reach five figures, be it for OFC O-League matches or the infrequent appearances of the national team. Yet for most of the nation’s inhabitants a visit to the national stadium to sit on its massive natural embankment involves a lengthy boat trip. The nation is comprised of hundreds of islands and while the population totals over 500,000, only some 100,000 live on Guadalcanal, where Honiara sits.
With this enormous interest in football and their natural ability in all forms of the game, it is easy to see why this Pacific Island archipelago has been dubbed 'the Brazil of the Pacific'. Much has been achieved in a short space of time but, as FIFA.com examines, this Melanesian nation have set their sights high.
Football had long been played in the islands, introduced via missionaries and colonial administrators, with the Solomon Islands Football Federation (SIFF) formed in 1979, only one year after the country gained independence. The nation played its first international in 1991 and a year later debuted in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, with a more than credible showing - Australia needing a winner four minutes from full time to avoid being held to a draw in Honiara. However a visit Down Under in France 1998 qualifiers proved a wake-up call as the Socceroos inflicted a record 13-0 defeat, with even goalkeeper Mark Bosnich scoring from the penalty spot.
Fast forward to 2004 and the Solomons showed they had matured as a football nation. A 2-2 draw against Australia on home turf was enough to leapfrog New Zealand and claim a runners-up berth at the OFC Nations Cup, and a place in the play-off to be crowned Oceania champions. Ultimately they failed over two-legs against the Socceroos, but the Solomons had proven what can be achieved in a nation where raw talent is all-consuming.
"Football is played everywhere,” said Eddie Ngava, SIFF General Secretary. “Even when we had tensions [civil unrest] football still prevailed and was played in all villages during the fighting. They would stop to come and watch football. Soccer is number one.”
Development of the game has taken place despite the Solomon Islands being hamstrung by geography, with the nation comprised of a disparate population spread across hundreds of islands. There is no national league in the Solomons unlike those which exist in neighbouring Pacific nations, and as yet club teams have yet to make their mark in the OFC O-League.
Numerous elite players have moved to foreign shores to further their careers, and a number of Solomon Islanders will be showing their wares in front of a global audience next month for Papua New Guinea club Hekari United at the FIFA Club World Cup. Most notable amongst this group is speedy forward Henry Fa'arodo, who has also played in Australia’s national competition and has stated his ambitions to make the switch to Korea Republic’s K-League.
The Solomon Islands' passion doesn’t end with the traditional form of the beautiful game. In 2008, the nation's futsal team, known as the Kurukuru, became the first Pacific Island nation to appear in the FIFA Futsal World Cup. The Solomons are also the only Oceania nation to participate in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, having now done so on four occasions.
“The fact that we went to the World Cup for Beach Soccer and Futsal without much technical improvement here has exposed the great potential that we have,” said Martin Alufurai, president of the Solomon Islands Football Federation.
It is in football's time-honoured format, however, that the populace will be looking for improvement. After the highs of 2004, when the team found themselves just 180 minutes from away from securing a ticket to the FIFA Confederations Cup, came bitter disappointment as the national team crashed out in the first round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
The chance for redemption is looming large, with Oceania's qualifiers beginning next August in New Caledonia. From humble beginnings, the Solomon Islands have made a long journey, but they still harbour aspirations to rub shoulders with world football's elite. “My hope is that one day Solomon Islands will be represented in the World Cup,” says Alufurai. “I have dreamt about that and I think one day we will get there.”