Football, of course, is massively popular in many countries across the globe. Such thoughts of all-consuming passion might conjure images of South America, Europe’s historic heartlands or some of Africa’s most populace countries. Yet few nations in the world can outdo Solomon Islands, at least on a purely pro-rata basis. Five-figure crowds flock to important matches at Honiara’s Lawson Tama Stadium – the national stadium carved out at the bottom of a steep mountainside. Such numbers are truly remarkable given the population on Guadalcanal, where the capital is situated, is barely 100,000 amid a national population of 500,000.
Yet important matches are only infrequent for the Solomon Islands, who in recent years have become known as the Bonitos. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, football is truly one of the country’s binding elements.
Twelve years ago the nation crowded around radios deep into the late evening as a lone voice described the Solomons greatest football achievement. There was no TV or internet coverage, simply the humble intonations of recently retired local radio broadcasting icon Bart Basia crackling into the humid Melanesian air. On that occasion a 2-2 draw with Australia in Adelaide meant qualification to the Oceania final, putting the Solomons just a single step away from the FIFA Confederations Cup and a FIFA World Cup™ play-off with Uruguay.
An almost unimaginable match-up with Diego Forlan, Alvaro Recoba and Co failed to materialise as the Socceroos got their revenge in the continental decider. But to this day that achievement during Germany 2006 qualifying remains a high watermark.
Platform for renewed glory
Recent campaigns have seen the Solomons remain highly competitive, but the promise of a decade ago has waned slightly amid improving standards in Oceania. This year the Bonitos have a chance of carving out a new era when they cross the warm waters of the Solomon Sea to Papua New Guinea, where Oceania’s Stage 2 qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup will be held.
The fact that the matches will take place in a neighbouring Melanesian nation is an advantage according to veteran midfielder Henry Fa’Arodo, the Bonitos most well-known face and one of the few survivors of that famous match 12 years ago in Adelaide.
“Playing in PNG is definitely a positive for us,” Fa’Arodo told FIFA.com on a recent visit to Australia where the Solomons commenced a lengthy build-up towards the May-June qualifiers. “The environment suits us, especially compared to tournaments in New Zealand in particular, where we struggle to get into the environment.”
Cultural familiarity aside, up to half a dozen of the current Bonitos squad, Fa’Arodo included, have experienced club football in Papua New Guinea, mostly donning the colours of the ambitious Hekari United who famously featured at the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup.
“We know what it is like environment-wise so playing in Papua New Guinea will leave the boys relaxed and more confident,” said Fa’Arodo. “We have a lot in common culturally, both being Melanesian, as we also do with Vanuatu and Fiji.”
People in the villages will be listening on the radio, people in the towns will be watching on TV. The interest is really high. The nation comes together and goes crazy for football.
While the conditions may suit the Solomons, the heat and humidity of Port Moresby will mean an extra challenge for some of the other visitors to PNG, most notably pre-tournament favourites New Zealand. The All Whites would typically start as favourites, and pre-qualifiers Samoa as outsiders, but otherwise it is difficult to pick a standout among the remaining six teams, in a tournament where only half the field will progress to the next stage.
There will, however, be little fear of the unknown for the Solo star. To say Fa’Arodo knows a thing or two about Oceanian football would be an understatement. He has played club football in three Oceania nations – New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and his homeland – as well as in Australia, formerly a member of the OFC. He is also the only Solomon Islander to appear in Australia’s professional A-League, and is now entering his fifteenth year in the international arena.
Flamboyance and finesse
The Solomon Islands are renowned for their flair and ingenuity, and it is little surprise they have found success on the Futsal court and on sand. And Fa’Arodo says the current national team display all the hallmarks of a traditional Solomon Islands side.
“The technical ability is a quite a bit better than it was ten years ago,” he says. “That is a real positive compared to what was the case before. Most of the guys are very naturally talented footballers.
“We feel like we have under-achieved given the talent we have,” Fa’Arodo adds in reference to recent years. “Competition in Oceania is getting better and better, so the challenge now is to get back to where we were.”
Whether Solomon Islands can reprise their famous achievements of the past this year remains to be seen. One thing, however, is certain. Success on the World Cup stage will unite a nation that is divided by geography.
“People in the villages will be listening on the radio, people in the towns will be watching on TV,” Fa’Arodo says with a touch of excitement in his voice. “The interest is really high. The nation comes together and goes crazy for football. If we can get a good result it will make a lot of difference to football in the Solomons.”