Vanuatu steps up against the odds

Expert Opinion

Democratic. Progressive. Transparent. In the course of the FIFA Congress held last week in Bahrain, football’s world governing body has amply demonstrated that it is none of these things. Meanwhile, its President, Gianni Infantino, is demonstrating with uncomfortable frequency the tell-tale signs of an autocrat.

The big advantage FIFA has in comparison to a political party, however, is that on a regular basis it presides over a sport which still has the power to transport millions to the heights and depths of emotion.

Which brings us, happily and opportunely for the beleaguered parent body, to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals, due to get underway in South Korea this coming Saturday (May 20) and run until June 11.

The official draw, which took place at the Suwon Atrium on March 14, was partly conducted by two former Argentinian players – Pablo Aimar and Diego Maradona – who shared the experience of having jump-started their international careers by winning a competition which, initially as the FIFA World Youth Championship, has occurred biennially since 1977.

Aimar played in the team which won the trophy in 1997, 18 years after Maradona had announced his genius as he contributed six goals to Argentina’s victory in the second version of the tournament.

Now these two have helped to shape what promises to be an outstanding latest version, not least in placing Vanuatu, who made history last year by earning a first qualification after finishing second in Oceania, in a group that also contains Germany, Venezuela and Mexico.

Cricket, reported to have 8000 registered players, is probably the nearest rival in terms of male sport on the island. With international matches being held since 1966, rugby union is the longest established major sport in Vanuatu and is also popular, but this sport has been adversely affected by administrative scandals affecting its National Federation.

The Vanuatu National Olympic Committee was set up in 1920, but it took 68 years for its first athletes to qualify for the Olympics when four competitors travelled to the 1988 Games in Seoul. Since then it has had representation at every Summer Games, sending a total of 31 athletes up to and including Rio 2016.

Vanuatu’s Commonwealth Games debut came in 1982, and, similarly, they have been represented ever since.

Volleyball is another very popular sport in Vanuatu, and its highest profile sporting figures in recent years have been the pairing of beach players Henriette Latika and Miller Elwin. They have been playing on the World Tour since 2008 and narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2012 Olympics in London.

The following year they excelled at the World Championships in Poland, qualifying second in their group behind the eventual bronze medallists from Brazil before giving top seeds and eventual world champions, Xue Chen and Zhang Xi of China, a fright in the first set of their second knock-out round match.

“I have sacrificed my life at home to become the best I can be,” Latika said. “I have two kids who stay on the island while I am away training and competing because I want to take part. I want to make my family and country proud of me and I want to show all the young people in Vanuatu what is possible if you try hard.”

But sadly, in the wake of that success, their coach Lauren McLeod warned that a lack of money was about to end their progress, telling insidethegames that the players’ Olympic dream would ‘stay a dream” unless they gained “sustainable financial support’.

Vanuatu failed to qualify for last year’s beach volleyball at Rio 2016.

Frustration has also beset Vanuatu’s footballing ambitions for many years. Having become a member of FIFA and of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) in 1988, and instituting one of the most advanced technical programs in Oceania, particularly at youth level, it has taken almost 30 years for the policy to bear fruit.

Vanuatu was chosen as one of six countries globally for a FIFA pilot project whereby players are identified at a young age and selected to train and stay full-time at the National Academy.

Now there are tangible results for that commitment as a squad under the guidance of Montenegro-born coach Dejan Gluscevic, who was appointed in February this year, prepares itself for the biggest footballing challenge their country has ever faced.

The former professional striker in the Indonesian, American and Canadian Leagues, who turned coach in 2002, told FIFA’s website: “I think I’m the right person for this job, I know how to adapt and use different training methods according to the needs of a team.”

He added: “Given my CV, my background, my various experiences in different parts of the world, and my track record with this age group, I think I can contribute to the success of this country on the international stage.”

Crucially, Gluscevic’s coaching career has given him key experience for the job in hand, given that he helped to train Canadian players who participated in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup, and more recently Serbian youngsters who won the last edition in 2015, defeating Brazil 2-1 after extra time.

“We will be making our first appearance in a World Cup,” he added. “For that reason alone, we must see ourselves as a ‘small’ team. But in terms of desire, pride and love for the country, Vanuatu is a great nation.

“This tournament will be an opportunity to show the whole world what Vanuatu can do on the pitch. It’s about representing both the country and the Oceania footballing family with pride, and earning the respect of the entire football community.”

Vanuatu reached South Korea as the second-placed Oceania qualifiers having lost 5-0 in the qualifying final to New Zealand, whose group contains France, Honduras and Vietnam, another team making their debut in this competition.

Gluscevic is placing his faith in ‘the good relationships and united spirit’ shown by his players. “The boys grew up together at the Vanuatu Academy Program,” he said. “They know each other inside out, and that could well help them.

“Our training program should also improve their overall performance and their reading of the game.”

Vanuatu will be seeking to emulate some of the success earned at past international tournaments by other island nations such as Iceland at the 2016 European Championships and Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago at the 1998 and 2006 World Cup finals.