On the bright side, the Bilikiki again showed their dominance in the region winning the Oceania championships in Tahiti and followed that up with a stunning opening victory over eventual semi-finalists Uruguay at the Beach Soccer World Cup in Dubai. The young Kurukuru, led by FIFA World Youth Futsal Player of the Year Elliot Ragomo, retained their Oceania title in Fiji and went on to gain more valuable experience overseas, this time playing the might of the world’s top sides at the Confederations Cup. Having come agonizingly close to defeating hosts Libya and Guatemala, the futsal side again represented the nation impeccably, further bolstering their reputation as future dark horses in international competitions. Ragomo, who received the Golden Boot as tournament top scorer and continued to feature in Europe’s top futsal league, enhancing his reputation as one of the world’s most exciting players.
Yet more referees benefitted from OFC, FA and SIFF coaching courses, the inaugural National Kids Football Festival was held and the progress of the youngsters at the FIFA LEARN & Play program were other highlights of 2009.
But not all was bright, as events during the opening of the Solomon Cup highlighted. In what should have been the opening showpiece of the nations top tournament, crowd violence at the games end saw players and officials attacked, emergency services threatened and prevented from carrying out their duties, gate takings were stolen and Chinese shops looted.
Most symbolically, the headquarters of SIFF was burnt to the ground. The national Bonito failed to play a single game during the year, no women’s or youth teams toured the region, little improvement in either the infrastructure or administration of provincial soccer was noted and further doubt continued to dominate the public discourse concerning the legitimacy and intentions of the leadership of the game in the media.
As we enter a new decade, soccer in the Solomon Islands, and sport in general, faces key questions surrounding its future development that if left unattended, and if unresolved, could have far reaching consequences beyond that of the actual playing field. Having spent much of the past year observing, researching, interviewing, traveling and playing with Solomon Island soccer players here and abroad, at international and village level, one thing is for certain; soccer will not fall down if the enthusiasm, passion and talent of the players is anything to go by.
Based on almost 20 years experience playing, observing and writing about sport in New Zealand and throughout Europe, the natural talent of Solomon Island players, if fully nurtured and administered and allowed equal access to competition, coaching and facilities, could turn the nation into the Pacific’s number one soccer force. A position previously held by Australia, and now New Zealand, it has been proven that if resources are properly harnessed and development fully focused, then participation in World Cups, players featuring in the worlds top leagues and revenue and other spinoffs from hosting major international tournaments can be achieved. Of course one cannot compare directly the resources available and the geography of New Zealand and Australia to the Solomon Islands, but the symbolic point lies in the ambition, communal focus and will of the various stakeholders.
No one group has the right or authority to determine the future of soccer in this country. The game belongs to the barefoot pikinini kicking balls around in the villages. FIFA, through the Oceania Football Confederation, have shown that they are more than willing to help both financially and technically, but in the end, the future for the next Ragomo or Totori, lies with the people of this nation. Only through the bravery, transparency, selflessness and communal work ethic of the government, member associations, sponsors, volunteers and other stakeholders can these youngsters be given the chance to become ambassadors for not only this great nation, but for the game in the Pacific. If political infighting, nepotism and greed continue to plague the public opinion and discourse surrounding the game, it is ultimately the boys and girls who will suffer. The Solomon Islands is a nation rich with natural resources, from the land and out beyond the reefs, but the strongest resource of all is its people. Allow them the chance to strive to achieve success on the sports field, and then inevitably their success in school, within the community and as Solomon Island citizens working together, rather than against one another will be the greatest spinoff.
2010 has started on a positive note with many of the provinces holding tournaments over the festive season, perhaps uncovering new talents for the future. The first overseas trip for the boys of the Learn & Play program has commenced and the recent FIFA/OFC and SIFF stakeholders’ workshop at the Mendana Hotel saw constructive dialogue between over 40 representatives from a vast range of concerned parties. The Bonito are scheduled to begin training again, futsal and beach soccer are to feature new national championships, and as usual, the talk on the streets and in the villages is full of enthusiasm about the season ahead.
The Solomon Islands has sport, and particularly soccer, as part of its national psyche and that wont change. It is in the consciousness of its people to overcome odds, be adaptable and work together for common goals. This must be extended throughout the provinces, throughout the minds of those determined to deny the rights of their fellow citizens. Soccer brings unity and is more than just a recreation. For a nation struggling to raise its collective identity and too often venting negative frustration towards one another and its leaders, soccer has the power to lead the way but only if the whole team gets to play the game.
Tom Mountjoy is a New Zealand anthropologist