The vast global nature of FIFA World Cup™ qualifying invariably offers up the quirky and unexpected. One such nation that fits the bill is Cook Islands, where the logistics of assembling an international football team are significant to say the least. The Polynesian nation located at the far eastern end of Oceania is made up of 15 inhabited islands, and an area which would cover most of western Europe. Yet a tiny population of some 15,000 inhabitants makes Cook Islands among the smallest nations to ever compete in World Cup qualifying.
Adding another fascinating layer is coach Drew Sherman, who at just 28, is among the youngest coaches to lead a team during the Russia 2018 campaign. Almost four years since their last international matches during 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying, the Cook Islanders, and their young coach, will finally have the chance to test themselves when Oceania matches commence later this month. Tonga will host a four-nation tournament commencing on 31 August – American Samoa and Samoa will also be part of the quartet – where one ticket to next year’s second round will be up for grabs.
Reared in the game
Welshman Sherman may be youthful by international coaching standards, but he does boast a lengthy resume for one so young. Despite a spell in the youth team at Swansea City, Sherman decided that a career as a top-flight footballer was not likely, and he turned his attention to coaching.
Football analysis and tactical discussion were a constant for Sherman as a youngster, thanks in part to the influence of his father – current New Zealand technical director Rob Sherman. “My mum will probably tell you it must have been a nightmare for her whenever football was on TV,” Drew Sherman told FIFA.com recalling some of his earlier football memories. “We [Drew and father Rob] would be talking the tactical details, not just the match, and that was from as young as I can remember. So definitely subliminally he was an enormous influence.
“He also has worked in coach education for a very long time, and also with some top players like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey in Wales, so knows his stuff. It is great to have someone there to bounce ideas off and support you. I wouldn’t say he has played a close role in terms of mentoring and being there in person, but he has certainly provided a lot of guidance and advice from 12,000 miles away.”
If we give a good account of ourselves and help grow football in this country, then it is a success for us.
Young Sherman had stints at Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers before running the Aldershot Town academy, which was followed by a youth development role at Southampton - a club renowned for its player production line. “I guess I have had a ten- to 15-year head start on coaching compared to most people. I went through my badges quite quickly, so had my UEFA A License at 21 and I think made me one of the youngest people in the UK to have that.”
Then came a rare opportunity to work in a remote part of Oceania. “It is a great football opportunity, as well as a great life opportunity,” Sherman says of a lifestyle on the main island of Rarotonga where the sun-kissed Pacific Ocean is rarely further than walking distance away.
He is far from the first aspiring coach to start small. Former English Premier League and current Zenit St. Petersburg boss Andre Villas-Boas started out at the helm of British Virgin Islands, with the Caribbean nation maintaining a similarly tiny population to that of the Cook Islands. So too, Sherman follows in the footsteps of a growing number of British coaches prepared to take on roles away from the limelight – Guam’s Gary White and India’s Stephen Constantine being two such examples.
Sherman, who is also responsible for the overall development of football in the archipelago, says the fact that some squad members are older than the coach has not been an issue. “If you have players keen to learn and develop, and you take a vested interest in helping them do that, they will buy into the fact you are trying to make them a better player. Ultimately that is what developing a team is, maximising individuals.”
From far and wide
After six months, Sherman and his charges finally have the chance to test themselves on the international stage. Understandably the logistical challenges of putting together a team, let alone a competitive one, have been considerable. The squad are effectively split into three groups, one based domestically, one in New Zealand, plus a handful of players in Australia.
Cook Islands suffers from depopulation with residents seeking work elsewhere, meaning there is a large Cook Islander diaspora. “It is about finding the best Cook Islanders to represent us,” said Sherman. “We have a population of 14,000 people to select from, and we have some 70,000 in New Zealand and 20,000 in Australia, so it makes sense to broaden the net as widely as possible.”
Most players in the squad are from the main island of Rarotonga, with a handful originally from the outer islands. The squad, however, are further hampered by the timing of the domestic league which commences this week, meaning many are lacking match fitness.
Despite the limitations Sherman maintains a level of ambition as the nation enters its sixth FIFA World Cup campaign. Indeed, while they finished bottom in Oceania last time, and have yet to win a qualifier against a FIFA Member Association, Cook Islands have come close to claiming continental scalps on several occasions.
“For us, it is about trying to get together the style of play we have been working on, and coming together cohesively,” Sherman says of the upcoming challenge in Tonga. “I’m confident we have a strong group of players, and their attitude has been exemplary. We finished bottom of the group last time and there is certainly no expectations on us, so the challenge is on us to surprise people.
“It is a strong culture, and they are very proud to represent Cook Islands. We want to make people here proud and in a way galvanise the nation. If we give a good account of ourselves and help grow football in this country, then it is a success for us.”