The Global Game

Passion and commitment drive football in tiny Tuvalu

Tuvalu players with former coach Leen Looyen
© imago images
  • Tuvalu is the latest stop in our Global Game series
  • The Polynesian outpost is one of the world’s smallest nations
  • Football has a strong and embedded local status despite challenges

One needs look no further than Tuvalu for an example of just how far the passion for football stretches across the globe. Located halfway between Australia and Hawaii, reaching Tuvalu is an arduous challenge in itself. So remote is Tuvalu that tourism numbers have often numbered just three figures in recent years.

Football’s epicentres are a world away, figuratively and literally. Yet football on this tiny Polynesian nation is comfortably the No1 sport. Its three main reef islands and six atolls are spread over a large area, but a tiny population – it is one of the smallest nations on earth – is just one of numerous challenges facing the Tuvalu Islands Football Association (TIFA).

Despite the difficulties, Tuvalu - an Associate Member of the Oceania Football Confederation - has already built a strong football history. The national team debuted at the Pacific Games in 1979, less than a year after independence. Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu came into being at the same time as Kiribati, its nearest neighbour.

Tuvalu sports ground

International promise

In 2007, they demonstrated their promise at the Pacific Games by drawing against Tahiti, a long-term mainstay of football in the Pacific. Just six years later, Tahiti represented Oceania at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, matching up against the likes of world champions Spain. Quirkily, those 2007 Pacific Games doubled as the first stage of FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, even though Tuvalu were ineligible to advance.

More recently, Tuvalu have received assistance from the Netherlands, and former Dutch national youth coach Foppe de Haan even led the side at the 2011 Pacific Games. There they managed a draw against Guam, who have subsequently, and consistently, proven their worth in World Cup qualifying. Tuvalu also featured at the most recent tournament in 2019, this time drawing against American Samoa.

Tuvalu during the 2011 Pacific Games
© imago images

Overcoming unlikely obstacles

Building the game is the next challenge facing TIFA. OFC stated last year that Associate Members can take part in development programmes and receive technical assistance from the confederation’s football division. In addition, they will receive annual grants, including equipment and funds for capacity building activities and national team development.

Tuvalu is hampered by the fact they have just one venue on the main island, the Tuvalu Sport Ground. TIFA President Soseala Tinilau says the ground is often not conducive to playing football with the round-ball game forced to share the facility with rugby. The pitch backs onto the airport and, incredibly, players have previously used the grass on the side of the runway to train and warm up.

Yet despite the tiny population and massive local challenges, football maintains a strong presence. Tuvalu boasts an impressive eight clubs, each representing one of the nation’s islands. Each boasts two men’s teams and, with the backing of local corporate support, multiple competitions are run annually.

The clubs also field a female team and, mirroring almost every nation in the world, women’s football in Tuvalu is on the rise. “Female football participation on the island is growing, and we are trying to encourage women's football,” said Tinilau. “We will be working together with OFC to develop a strategy that will promote the participation of women in football.”

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