Kilifi Uele, the grand maestro of Pacific football
Kilifi Uele has played at elite level in Oceania for four decades
His international career pre-dates Tonga’s FIFA World Cup history
One of the oldest goalscorers in international football history
It would be quicker to list what Kilifi Uele hasn’t accomplished, than to list what he has done in a storied four-decade football career. Now Tonga Football Association (TFA) technical director, Uele has been national team captain, coach and much more. His is a name that is known far and wide across the Tongan archipelago and beyond.
Though now 45, he was still playing international club football as recently as January this year in the OFC Champions League for local gun side Veitongo FC. That appearance meant Uele’s career elite career stretched into a barely-believable fourth decade.
But perhaps even more notably, Uele is acknowledged as one of the oldest goalscorers in international football after netting as a 43-year-old against New Caledonia in 2017. Uele, however, says he will not be in the frame when Oceania qualifiers for Qatar 2022 finally kick-off next year.
The longevity of Uele’s career is evidenced by the fact he debuted way back in 1993, prior to the birth of many of today’s global football greats. His debut as a 17-year-old even pre-dates Tonga’s FIFA World Cup™ history, which began on the road to France 1998.
He was captain of the side when Tonga faced an all-star Australia side in 2001 and slipped to a 22-0 defeat. But any red faces from that world record scoreline lasted just a few days when American Samoa infamously lost 31-0 to the same opponent. Nevertheless Uele describes playing against a professional side for the first time as a “big highlight”.
And Uele was still in the national squad during a memorable week in August 2015 during the Russia 2018 cycle. Incredibly, the previous time Tonga had played a World Cup qualifier in front of home fans was in 1999, 16 year earlier. Uele, of course, featured in both.
“It is very special to represent my country, especially so at that age,” Uele told FIFA.com. “I know I wasn’t, fitness-wise, fully at that high level that you need in World Cup qualifiers, but the coach selected me to add experience.”
Uele’s rise through the ranks continued when he was appointed technical director for the Tonga Football Association aged just 30, a position he has now held since 2005.
Tonga has long been better renowned for rugby, but Uele says that is rapidly changing at grassroots level. And he says the TFA is doing what it can with its resources to grow the game further.
“We have a capacity and potential to compete at the world stage,” Uele said. “It is a matter of structure and more organisation in terms of development programmes and education.
“We need a consistent and sustained development pathway, but that needs to be fully completed. At the moment players can sometimes go from school to national team in one leap, and not always with proper coaching.
“I believe players should start at a young age, but they need to have or develop a love for the game. If we are to develop high performance players, we need coach education to develop high performance coaches.”
Developing women’s football and football away from the main island of Tongatapu is also a growing priority for the TFA. Construction of new facilities recently commenced on Vava’u, the second largest island on the archipelago and home to the fastest growing footballing population in the country.
“We have a community outreach to connect with those islands, so that we are connected through football all over Tonga. That is part of our strategy. You never know if you will get our best player from an outer island.
“We have a focus on women’s football, especially with the 2023 [Women's World Cup] tournament being hosted locally, and maybe that means opportunities. Women’s football is being supported by our president and executive committee.
“For me, it is part of my personal mission to grow professionally so to be involved in such programmes is a highlight. Part of the reason why I work in football is to develop my own people, and leave a legacy for football in Tonga.”