FIFA's Centennial year will forever be remembered as an important date in the history of New Caledonia. After taking part in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, which also counted for the Oceanian Nations Cup, this South Pacific island has just become a fully-fledged member of the FIFA family. With a population of 220,000, the island is one of France's Overseas Territories and has already produced several outstanding players, including world champion Christian Karembeu. FIFA.com sat down with Claude Fournier, the President of the New Caledonian Federation, to find out what this recognition means to FIFA's newest member.
You are now officially a member association of FIFA. How do you feel?
We have entered the big football family. In fact, I should say that we have returned because we were one of the instigators of the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation) in 1966, though we didn't actually join it until 1999. We took part in the competitions but that didn't really count. From now on, we will get genuinely motivated to participate in FIFA's official competitions.
How did your entry into FIFA come about?
In 1999, the year we joined the OFC, I was just the vice-president of the Federation, since Mr Wamedjo was still the President. We met President Blatter and Michel Platini at the Congress in Auckland. Platini asked me why we didn't request FIFA affiliation like Tahiti, which is also a French Overseas Territory. So we set our sights on that. In late 1999, the President of the French Football Federation, Mr Claude Simonet, came to New Caledonia to exhibit the World Cup and while he was there he told us that he was sure we could reach an arrangement that would allow us to join FIFA.
In March 2000, I arrived at the helm of the New Caledonian Football Federation and at the end of May of that year the FFF gave us the go-ahead. The French Minister for Youth and Sport endorsed that decision and we submitted our application to FIFA.
So what is the state of football like in New Caledonia?
We have about 400 teams, 125 amateur clubs, and 8,200 players, all of whom are amateur, of course. 80% of our footballers are Melanesians and it is the second most popular sport after cricket. Since the latter is played mainly by women, it's fair to say that football is the number one men's sports in New Caledonia.
How will being a member of FIFA benefit New Caledonian football?
Football first took off at the beginning of the 20th century. Our federation was founded in 1928, but we've spent all that time playing in official competitions with nothing at stake and so it was quite dispiriting and hard to get motivated. By becoming members of FIFA, we will really have something to aim for when we play and we'll also have access to extra resources to help us carry out our major projects.
What are these major projects?
We've done a lot of good work already, but it's vital that we see our efforts through to a positive and sustainable conclusion. Three seasons ago we decided to put the best ten Caledonian teams into a single league in order to raise the standard across the board. We now want to boost training facilities and standards because we know that if our players get good training when they're young they'll have a better chance of going on to enjoy professional careers. That's our goal; to give young Caledonians the opportunity to become professionals, something which is very difficult for them to do at the moment. To achieve this, we plan to make it mandatory for every club in our top flight [the National First Division) to run an under 13 team and let them play as a curtain-raiser to each league match.
As things stand, young players get signed by clubs but hardly ever get to play and, of course, without competition they don't progress. Also, once or twice a year, I'm going to try to send our best young player to a French training academy so that he can get an idea of what it takes to become a professional. That will be an important eye-opener, because our young lads are technically gifted but sometimes take things a little too casually. We want to turn them into responsible teenagers and adults. Our plans are, therefore, as much about social development as sporting development.
What will change in the Caledonian Football Federation?
We cannot work solely with volunteers any more, if only out of respect for them. Now we're going to need to get really serious and hire professional staff. After that, in order to make our organisation successful, we'll have to earn the support of the directors of all the clubs. Everyone has to pull together for any of us to make progress. The only interest we should all have is to make Caledonian football successful. We've made great strides in the last few years and I think we're reached a reasonably good level. Our mid-term objective is to become a force to be reckoned with in the OFC. In the long term, my ambition is the same as that of any other self-respecting Oceanian: to break New Zealand and Australian's domination, if only at youth level. At the moment, I would rank us just behind Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, probably at the same level as Tahiti. I hope we can close the gap quickly.
Do you keep in touch with New Caledonians such as Antoine Kombouaré and Christian Karembeu?
I speak to them both regularly on the phone. Antoine already told me he'd be happy to help us but I can't call on him just yet. He has just begun a coaching career and I'm sure he'll shortly be working with a really big club. Maybe he'll come back in a few years and take up a position as National Director of Football but for the moment it's not practical. As for Christian, I'm not sure that Adriana wants to set up home in New Caledonia (laughs)!
Do you plan to apply for a FIFA Goal Project?
Yes, certainly. We hope to set up an academy for training players and coaches. That will enable us to monitor everyone's development from close range. One of the local authorities has already promised to give us the land we've identified for building the academy. I'm confident that with the support of everyone in Caledonia we'll be able to convince FIFA of our plan's value.
How would you rate the standard of refereeing in New Caledonia?
That's the part of the game where we've got the most ground to make up. We wanted a full-time referee trainer from the FFF but it wasn't possible. Now we're hoping that someone will come from the FFF three times per year for a period of two months each time. It's an essential aspect of the game to develop because it's impossible to have a good match without a good referee.
What can we wish you for the future?
That New Caledonia proves itself worthy of the honour that FIFA has just bestowed on us and of the trust the international football family has shown in us. To achieve that, everyone in New Caledonia - footballers, authorities, and private companies - will have to work together. The average attendance for our league games has risen from 300 to 3,000, and that shows that we're on the right track. Long may we continue going forward!