It has to begin somewhere...
Their national game may operate at an amateur level, but, relatively speaking, these are exciting times for football fans on the cosy Melanesian island of New Caledonia.
Marooned some 1000 miles east of Australia, the French-controlled territory lies on the very edge of the developed world, as remote from the beating heart of world commerce as the global game. And their national team plays in the football region less travelled, the home of national teams that appear as mere dots on the global map, whose spots in the world rankings are as obscure as their names would suggest: Oceania.
But things are changing in this ambitious outcrop of about 250,000 people – both on and off the field of play. Somewhat.
Away from the plot-able confines of the beautiful game, the shifting sands are perhaps betrayed by the distinctive political status by which its French colonizers now refer to it: For these days, New Caledonia is known as a special collectivity, essentially meaning it has been pitched on a course for possible independence from France. A referendum fuelled by the desire for self-determination by the island’s indigenous population of Melanesians could come as early as 2014.
On the hallowed turf, there is an almost mirror image of this thirst to break free. A newfound optimism has emerged, coming in the wake of a second successive gold medal for the men's national team at the recent Pacific Games, one of the Oceania region's premier tournaments. Yet, rather than throwing off the shackles of the French as they would do in the case of a vote in favour of independence, in the theatre of football the controls are very much guided by a French hand. That individual is the New Caledonian national team’s head coach Christophe Coursimault, who, incredibly, is gunning for a shot at qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
That would be no mean feat. They lie a lowly 155th in the world rankings, between fellow minnows Malta and Hong Kong. And though New Caledonia are essentially Oceania’s second best side, on paper the gap between them and occupiers of top spot in the region is vast. For standing in the way of the fairytale, as with qualification for the 2010 tournament in South Africa, is almost certain to be New Zealand – should they again make it as far as the final round of regional qualifying.
Such romanticism has surrounded the island since Europeans stumbled upon it for the first time. Captain James Cook remarked wistfully that its rugged landscape reminded him of Scotland, the homeland of his father, after catching sight it in the late 1700s. So he gave it the Roman name for Scotland, Caledonia.
For New Caledonians, the latest fairytale, the road to Brazil 2014 begins next June in Fiji in a process which doubles as the Oceania Football Confederation 2012 Nations Cup. But Coursimault is under no illusions over the scale of the task before his squad.
“The team has to keep working hard because we need to prepare well,” he said in the aftermath of his team’s Pacific Games success. “We need to meet often to stay focused and make sure the progress we have made over the last few months does not go to waste.”
Yet, despite the upward trajectory New Caledonian football appears to be coursing, for a long time the outcrop languished in the doldrums of the world game, alongside footballing paupers like neighbouring Kiribati, Caribbean islanders Guadeloupe and Confederation of African Football associate member Reunion – none of which are members of Fifa.
For New Caledonia, life kicking around a size five began charting a new course in 2004. That was the year the island became a full member of Fifa, which love it or loathe it – as many these days apparently do – is more or less the only ticket to genuine progress in the game. Substantial funding followed through the Switzerland-based organization’s Goal Project, a programme to award money to develop football in countries whose national associations have the least resources to do so themselves. That cash was used to construct a new artificial pitch, bolstering facilities.
Then came the big one. Another cash injection was directed and used to establish a football academy, which, if World Cup qualification doesn’t come this time, may provide the steady ground for a more sustained period of success, and, perhaps a platform for a better shot at World Cup qualification.
The complex, due to open in February 2012, is, not surprisingly, seen as a key plank in the progress of New Caledonian football.
Coursimault does not underestimate its potential impact. “It is a real achievement for New Caledonian football, which needs this infrastructure to go further and reach a new level in player development,” he said in a recent address to the domestic press when it was revealed that the first intake of players who are to use the facilities will be elite youngsters born in 1998 and 1999. “The young footballers who come into the programme will benefit from four trainings a week and a medical monitoring system has also been set up.”
Though optimistic, Coursimault is circumspect, and is probably right to err on the side of relativity. New Caledonia may be streets – or, perhaps more appropriately, pitches – ahead of some of its Pacific island neighbours, but the task of development and reaching another level is bigger than most. The talent pool (there are just 5,200 registered players on the island) is so small, the onus will almost certainly be on quality coaches maximising the potential of the available numbers.
And faint might best describe their World Cup hopes. Let’s not forget that Oceania is the only football region that does not get a single automatic qualification spot for the World Cup finals. Last time round, New Zealand had to negotiate a two-leg play-off against Bahrain, the fifth-best side from qualifying in Asia, which itself gets four automatic qualifying places. But for 2012 the play-off is contested between Oceania and the fourth-placed team from qualifying in North, Central America and the Caribbean, meaning the spectre of a potentially even trickier tie.
So should New Caledonia emerge on top in Oceania this time, they could be facing up to Costa Rica, say, or Honduras. Either would be mighty, formidable opponents. Relatively speaking, of course.