Cook Islands tackle little and large challenges in Polynesian paradise
Cook Islands’ tiny population is spread over a vast area
The Polynesians achieved successive wins during Russia 2018 qualifying
Harnessing their limited resources remains a challenge
Few national associations, if any, face the same challenges as Cook Islands. A massive national boundary – one which covers an area the size of much of western Europe – combined with one of the world’s smallest populations, make for an exacting challenge as the Cook Islands Football Association (CIFA) seek to maximise their football resources.
Cook Islands is also one of the world’s more remote nations. Head to the far end of Oceania and you will find FIFA’s smallest member nation outside of the Caribbean. Only French Polynesia (Tahiti) stands between Cook Islands and the South America mainland, some 8,000 kilometres away.
Cook Islands’ population numbers just 17,000, yet the island nation is dotted across an incredible 2.2 million square kilometres of ocean. For comparison, that is around three to four times the size of France.
Though the nation has been self-governing since 1965, Cook Islands is one of FIFA's newer members having affiliated to the world governing body in 1994, some 23 years after CIFA was founded. The Polynesians took part in qualifiers for the 1994 FIFA World Cup™ but it wasn’t until the most recent campaign that they made an impact.
In the opening round of OFC’s Russia 2018 qualifiers, Cook Islands not only won their first-ever World Cup match against a FIFA Member Association, they duly repeated the feat just 48 hours later. Only goal difference denied Cook Islands unexpected passage to the next stage and a rare opportunity to meet continental heavyweights New Zealand in a competitive match.
A portion of that team was comprised of Cook Islander diaspora. A significant number of eligible representatives live in Australia, and especially New Zealand. But organising national team matches is no easy feat – Tahiti is the nearest neighbour at over 1,000 kilometres away.
The main island of Rarotonga is the nation’s football hub, and home to the impressive FIFA-funded headquarters, inaugurated in 2009 and a venue which has hosted numerous OFC competitions. Rarotonga is also home to most of the nation’s main clubs, but seven other islands have local football associations despite just three-figure populations in most instances.
CIFA recently conducted a four-day coach education course on the island of Atiu, but the 200 kilometre trip across the ocean provides evidence of the difficulties faced in harnessing the game’s potential.
Despite the geographical obstacles, the CIFA has successfully run its development programmes and regularly holds competitions on a national scale, with the biennial youth championship being one of the more important dates on the calendar. The latter plays an important role in identifying players for OFC competition. Football, however, unlike in neighbouring Tahiti, faces strong competition for local athletes from rugby league and netball.
Aside from the senior national team, there are recent stories of success at international level. The youngest women’s youth team reached the semi-finals at the 2017 OFC U-16 Championship, while a year earlier Cook Islands broke Samoa’s traditional regional dominance to win the preliminary tournament of the OFC U-19 Championship.
This article is part of our 'The Global Game' series, which focuses on football in remote places away from the spotlight. Next week we'll travel to the Faroe Islands.