Though he has no illusions about the potential of the team he coaches, Tim Jerks insists that the Cook Islands exemplify much of what is good about the game. The Australian-born coach always knew his side would be up against it at the ongoing South Pacific Games; after all, the Cook Islands has a population of just 15,000 and its national team is ranked 198th in the current FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings.
With just seven clubs in their national league, and a domestic season of just 20 weeks per year, it was certainly no surprise that the Cook Islands proved no match for Fiji on Monday in their opening Oceanian FIFA World Cup™ qualifier in Apia, Samoa. However, while the outcome - a 4-0 defeat - left Jerks disappointed, he was quicky to add that he was "very, very pleased" with the attitude of his combative players. "The individual and the team jobs were great," said the Aussie. "They were disciplined and spirited, and for a tiny country to do so well against Fiji is extraordinary."
Jerks says that, while the Cook Islands have almost no chance of progressing from the first stage of the Oceania qualifiers, there is a role for tiny countries to play in the world game. He told FIFA.com: "We had a camp with just 18 players coming into the qualifiers. We didn't have any games, no friendlies. For many players it was their first game at any international level. With that in mind, you have to work on individuals, on organisation and on discipline. That they achieved and that's why I was so proud."
'An interesting encounter'
Jerks says coaching a country of the stature of the Cook Islands is far from soul-destroying work. "If I am to find my niche, it is probably here with the smaller nations. We do a lot of face to face work, building and trying to understand the culture. Even if we lose or draw the players must enjoy the experience," he says.
"We have no delusions of grandeur. As a coach I prefer to work with people like our players who give you everything. Their spirit is high and their development is obvious, and what it is really all about for them is to go home proud with the way they have competed."
The Cook Islands, a self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand, has a proud and honest nation team, who say they approach their matches with specific goals, even when there is little chance of winning. "Our physical goal is to wear our opponents down, our mental goal is that if we fall behind we have the capacity to keep playing," says Jerks.
The Cook Islands have Tahiti and New Caledonia still to play in their group campaign, but their real World Cup 'final' will come against Tuvalu, the only country smaller than the Cook Islands at the tournament in Apia. Jerks previously worked in Tuvalu, so will have some tips for his players. "It's going to be a really interesting encounter," he promises.