Tony Jamieson turns out every week for amateur club Wairarapa United in one of the most far-flung social leagues on earth simply for the enjoyment of the game. This hasn't, however, prevented the Cook Islands captain from locking horns with stars from the English Premiership such as Mark Viduka throughout an international football career that began at the OFC Nations Cup Tahiti 2000.

Jamieson has ancestry that makes him eligible to play on the international stage for a Cook Islands placed 199th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and although his debut ended in a 17-0 defeat, it hasn't stopped him coming back for more.

Jamieson's importance to this tight, small-knit, group is immense. Team-mate Thomas Le Mouton, who plays his football in New Zealand's Northern Premier League competition for Albany United, explains why.

"Tony has total respect from everyone," said Le Mouton. "He is a good communicator, he gets everyone motivated, stands by you when you make a mistake or do something wrong, just what a captain should be, he has everything."

As for Le Mouton himself, he made his international debut in a 4-0 defeat against Fiji, and has relished the challenge of competing in the international arena.

"My connection to the Cook Islands is through my mum," said the Albany player. "She brought us up the island way and we played football because of my late father and I think football was a way of keeping that relationship with him alive for me and my brother. But to be selected for my country is a great honour. My debut was tough because I was so nervous and sat around getting anxious about what would happen. But Tony was there and he helped me get through it."

Back in New Zealand, the response from his club and team-mates at domestic level to his selection has, Le Mouton says, been extremely supportive. "The response was great," he explained, "they said to me, 'Go for it', and some people asked me if they could have my kit. But I said 'no' because it's my very first one and I'm keeping it."

Smells like team spirit
Jamieson also has a sense of real pride in representing a country with a population of just 16,000, and whose player base is less than 100 - many of whom play their football in New Zealand. "We know we don't have the best resources in the world so our best asset is our team spirit," the skipper said. "The players have to get on with each other because we have our backs to the wall - we have no cliques."

The Cook Islands' ongoing South Pacific Games campaign has been assisted by a quirk of the draw which has allowed them to watch opponents in action before playing them, meaning coach Tim Jerks has been given the opportunity to formulate game-plans to subdue their more powerful opponents.

"We got a bit of a feel for how Fiji and New Caledonia played and made strategies to combat that," said Jamieson. "We sat around together as a squad and talked about what we'd seen and what we would like to try to exploit their strengths and weaknesses - our environment is very proactive in this way because circumstances mean we have to try to think outside the square to make the most of what we have,"

As for Cook Islands' ability to save their fading FIFA World Cup™ dreams, their captain has only one aim for the moment: to defeat a rapidly-improving Tuvalu side on Saturday.

"We know Tuvalu well as Tim used to coach them," he said. "I speak for everyone in this squad when I say Tim is the best coach Cook Islands had ever had. He is organised, professional, and does well with the resources he has had to work with and our team plays for him as much as they play for Cook Islands.

"We expect an open game, both teams will be looking for three points and we believe Tuvalu will open up and hopefully that will allow us to score a goal or two. If I'm the one who scores for us, then everyone could be in trouble!"