Wednesday 03 April 2024, 09:15

FIFA Series™ keeps football moving forward on and off the pitch in Vanuatu

  • Vanuatu took part in the inaugural FIFA Series™ in March

  • The matches offered a rare opportunity to face nations outside Oceania

  • Vanuatu’s FIFA-funded Freshwater Stadium set to host multiple continental tournaments

Football in Vanuatu has enjoyed several milestone achievements, both on and off the field, in recent years and participation in the very first FIFA Series™ in March is the latest step forward for the beautiful game in the Pacific island nation. FIFA’s new initiative allows member associations more regular opportunity to face national teams from other continents in friendly matches, and serves to unlock technical development opportunities previously unavailable. Its pilot phase was initiated during the March 2024 window in the Men’s International Calendar ahead of a full roll-out in 2026 with the FIFA Series only staged in even years.

Kerry Iawak of Vanuatu and Balla Moussa Conte of Guinea battle for possession

The FIFA Series was particularly poignant for Vanuatu after heartbreakingly being forced to withdraw from FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers in 2022 due to the impact of Covid-19. It was a tough blow for one of a handful of Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) nations where football is unquestionably the number one sport. Vanuatu took to the field in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for their opening FIFA Series game, recording a 6-0 defeat to Guinea in what was their first meeting with African opposition. They followed that with an unlucky 3-2 loss against Brunei Darussalam in only their sixth match against an Asian team, and just their eighth game ever against a non-OFC opponent.

Vanuatu Football Federation President Lambert Maltock says the new tournament provides an invaluable development tool for Pacific nations. “Vanuatu, like any other small nations in Oceania, finds it difficult to play any other bigger football nations,” said Maltock, a FIFA Council member and current OFC President. “All year round, we compete amongst our OFC nations only, so to raise our ranking and performance standard.”

Bong Kalo of Vanuatu warms up

“This new initiative undertaken by FIFA allows Vanuatu, like all other smaller countries, to have an opportunity to play a more competitive international competitions thereby raising our performance and measuring our level of football against some other countries in other continents. “We believe we have many skilful players, but there is no opportunity to expose them. [The FIFA Series is] a great learning experience and exposure, which can bring additional knowledge into building a new or innovative football culture from which we can benefit and direct our football planning, development and drive into new competitive platforms at international level.”

OFC President Lambert Maltock speaks at the OFC FIFA Forward 3.0 workshop in Auckland

Last year, FIFA President Gianni Infantino visited the Melanesian nation with an inspection of the new 6,500-capacity Freshwater Stadium – constructed with FIFA Forward funds – in Port Vila the highlight of the visit.

Just a few months earlier, the nation had rejoiced as national team captain Brian Kaltak – the country’s first-ever professional player – became the Pacific’s first footballer to win Australia’s A-League. Such were the celebrations, big screens were set up at Freshwater Stadium for the match and Vanuatu’s then-Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau even made the trip to Sydney to witness history being made.

It will now be the location for another milestone moment in the nation’s rich football history when Vanuatu hosts the OFC Nations Cup for the first time later this year. It is the high point of a busy period for Vanuatu, which includes staging OFC U-19 Men’s Championship qualifying and 2026 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers during 2024. The potential dividends bought by FIFA’s infrastructure investment in Vanuatu are well timed with OFC granted an automatic qualification spot at the 2026 World Cup for the first time, in addition to a berth in the Inter-Confederation Play-Off.

Players of Vanuatu pose for a team photograph

“Vanuatu has embarked a strategic plan to qualify its country to the FIFA World Cup 2026,” Maltock explained. “The same vision and strategies apply also with the youth categories. “We have also started the TDS (FIFA Technical Development Scheme) programme, which was launched last year and funded by FIFA. All these inputs are part of our strategies and effort to try and bridge the existing the gap.”

Football Development