The Global Game

Kiribati defy odds to maintain their football love affair

Bairiki National Stadium, Kiribati
  • Kiribati is a collection of tiny atolls sitting on the International Date Line
  • Football is the No1 sport despite limited resources and remoteness
  • OFC have recently restarted Kiribati’s associate membership

Being a footballer in Kiribati is not for the faint-hearted or weak of constitution.

Sitting on the equator in Micronesia, north of Fiji and Samoa, the heat and stifling humidity is compounded by grassless pitches which are often little more than compacted sand. The Bairiki National Stadium is a metaphor for football in the remote nation with its large grandstand and strong attendances contrasting with its rough-hewn pitch, top-dressed with sand from the reef. 

The national stadium is one of the better offerings, with many coconut palm tree-lined pitches across the 23 inhabited atolls comprised of ancient ground coral or obstacles such as rocks or even tree remnants.

Not that football’s popularity suffers due to the challenges. With a population of 110,000, some 10,000 inhabitants identified themselves as being active footballers in the last national census, making the game the nation’s No1 sport by some margin.

Kiribati (pronounced ‘Ki-ri-bas’) boasts competitions in senior, youth, veteran and schools level, and even in futsal. The main island of South Tarawa is the nation’s football hub, and is largely a group of connected elongated islets, some of which are barely 100 metres wide with lapping waves on either side. The low-lying land makes the nation particularly susceptible to rising sea levels.

“The main island is become more and more congested,” Martin Tofinga, Kiribati Islands Football Federation (KIFF) told “Communication and travel is a problem, with such vast distances between the islands,” says Tofinga with no little understatement. The nation’s islands are spread over an extraordinary 3.5 million square kilometres, an area larger than most nations in the world. “We are a nation of water,” Tofinga says with a laugh. “Perhaps we should introduce football in the water!”

© imago images

The scene of devastating conflict during World War II, Kiribati gained independence in 1979, having previously been a British protectorate. A national representative team have competed in the Pacific Games on three occasions, most recently nearly a decade ago. But after that hiatus things are now looking promising for Kiribati football. 

“Football is getting very popular and we have managed to introduce a lot of changes in recent years, at club and administrative level,” said Tofinga. “Women’s football is becoming more popular now and is on the rise, and that is something we would like to focus more on.”

Football in Kiribati

The nation received a timely boost recently with the Oceania Football Confederation’s decision to restart Kiribati’s associate membership and the provision of funding.

“[We are] delighted to be assisting Kiribati football communities with equipment and we are also poised to commence our online workshops to assist KIFF with capacity building,” said OFC Head of Football Development Paul Toohey.

“Throughout October and November we will be working with coaches, teachers and volunteers via a series of workshops in futsal and grassroots football.”

The biennial national championship is the major football event for Kiribati and is in itself a massive undertaking. “We are blessed to have strong support from our government to help with the costs,” Tofinga said.

There are no flights and the hundreds of players – many of who have spent days at sea - stay with friends or are billeted. Despite the challenges, each island is represented, which in itself, is an incredible display of commitment and passion for the world game in this remote part of the world.

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