Tonga will not want for commitment and desire when they take the field next week in the opening round of Oceania qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The Polynesian nations of American Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga and hosts Samoa are currently preparing for this preliminary series, from which only one of the quartet will maintain their FIFA World Cup dream when competition concludes after five days.
For the last eight months, members of the Tonga national team squad have sacrificed all else to concentrate on a single and relatively humble goal – securing progression to Round Two, and a position alongside Oceania’s seven other nations next June in Fiji. For five to six days a week, Tonga’s elite players have sacrificed income and family commitments to make an almost daily trip to the Loto Tonga Soka Center along the bumpy roads of Tongatupa, the main landmass in an archipelago of almost 200 islands which comprise the Kingdom of Tonga.
Organisation and fitness therefore should not be a major factor for Tonga. However, few of the players have experienced FIFA World Cup football and many have not undergone modern basic training in childhood, as would be de rigueur for most international players.
Charged with piecing together a cohesive national team, despite the many hurdles, is a novice coach in the shape of 25-year-old Chris Williams. Not only is the Australian making his international coaching entrance but he is in fact debuting as a senior coach. Indeed, some of the Tonga players are older than Williams, most notably 38-year-old Lokoua Taufahema, a veteran of the France 1998 qualifying campaign. To add further context, Slovakia’s Vladimir Weiss was the youngest coach at South Africa 2010 at 45, almost twice Williams' age.
“The right place at the right time,” was how Williams described to FIFA.com his rapid ascension to become part of the 2014 FIFA World Cup story. “It is certainly a dream come true. Since I started coaching I wanted to coach an international team, and it certainly has come a lot quicker than I thought. My age doesn’t really matter to me, I just want to make a fist of it now and lead the team to victory.”
The Tongan players’ unwavering commitment suggests that half the challenge has already been overcome. Not that Williams lacks understanding of the unique obstacles in this part of the world, having lived and breathed the local game since arriving in Tonga some 18 months ago as a volunteer aid worker. Nor, one senses, does he lack for football knowledge, having coached for a decade and having spent time absorbing and learning the trade with apprenticeships at Motherwell and FC Copenhagen.
To add to the distinctive challenges facing Williams’ team is that many of the squad will take to the field next week against American Samoa in Apia making their international debut. Tonga’s paucity of international exposure is also a hindrance. They have played just two internationals since the South Africa 2010 qualifiers concluded in September 2007.
On the surface, it would seem Tonga have cause for optimism given a positive historical record against their opponents, having beaten all three in previous qualifying campaigns, and also claiming a draw and a narrow loss against the Cook Islands two years ago. However, Tonga - unlike American Samoa and Cook Islands - did not have the benefit of invaluable international experience which came with contesting the Pacific Games in September.
The Tongans had to make do with a ten-day trip to New Zealand in September and matches against local sides, while also making a brief stop-over in Fiji this week and a meeting against Fiji’s crack club outfit Lautoka. “We will be underdogs,” Williams says of Oceania’s opening round of Brazil 2014 qualifiers. “Cook Islands and American Samoa benefitted by playing in the Pacific Games in September, but we believe we have an effective strategy which can get us three wins.
“I have imparted my philosophy to the boys and they believe in what we are doing. Of course the ultimate goal is to qualify, however I have watched the other three teams play and really, if you are the coach of Cook Islands or Samoa, you would be expecting to win. It’s not a beauty contest though... if we win three games, we will go through.
“There is definitely some talent in this group and I’d like to think we can maybe surprise a few teams in Samoa. Our road to Samoa has been a very difficult path, however the boys have shown so much positive transformation and improvement. I have faith in my boys and I believe they will deliver that diehard Tongan spirit.”
Tonga’s talent pool is small, with players selected only from Tongatupa, which has a population of around 50,000, many of whom are focussed on the national sport of Rugby. But the squad, Williams says, have demonstrated a level of devotion and undiluted joy for the game not always found in more professional environments. “The level of desire and commitment has been phenomenal,” said Williams. “Really it is costing the players to play while they are away from jobs or their farmland. I can’t speak highly enough of the players, so I really hope we come away with a couple of results."