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After seven years, things are looking up for Tonga Football Association (TFA), who will host three OFC competitions in 2024 and welcome a brand-new stadium in the Kingdom.

February’s OFC Men’s Champions League – Qualifying in Nuku’alofa was the first time since 2017 that the Tonga FA had hosted an OFC competition.

The four-team tournament saw nearly 5,000 people turn out at Teufaiva Stadium over the three match days, signalling a step in the right direction for football in the region.

Photo Credit: OFC Media via Tonga FA

A sign of things to come for Tonga, who’ll host two more competitions, the OFC Men’s Nations Cup – Qualifying in March and the OFC U-16 Men’s Championship – Qualifying in April.

“Very, very happy to have them back in Tonga after going through so many problems locally,” said TFA General Secretary Lui ‘Aho.

“This tournament was a success. We call it a success because it can be attributed to active participation and engagement of all stakeholders. Creating sort of a vibrant and positive atmosphere. The acquiring of the stadium in town, you know, it produces a conducive environment for the event.

“It also showcased Tonga. It showcases who we are. I think it’s important.”

After several delays due to COVID-19 and a volcanic eruption and tsunami, the 500-seat stadium, which is being constructed with natural disaster resilience in mind, is set to be completed at the end of August.

Photo Credit: OFC Media (Stadium as of February 2024)

It will be the home of the Tonga Football Association and the second-largest outdoor venue in the country. Only the government owned Teufaiva Stadium is bigger.

“I think we are on the right footing, as we envisage having our stadium open next year, then we will apply for every tournament to be held here,” said ‘Aho.

But the expansion of football in Tonga doesn’t stop there, with General Secretary Lui ‘Aho using the backing from FIFA’s Forward programme to open technical centres across the country to help grow and develop the game outside the capital.

Photo Credit: (Vava’u training facility)

“We have one regional centre, technical centre in Haʻapai in the pipeline, we’ve have had our application with that. That will be for this year, after that, then we’ll have one technical centre in ‘Eua, we already have one in Vava’u. Its running well there, so next one will be Haʻapai followed by a ‘Eua. And at the same time, we are trying to develop a further 15 acres, which is yet be developed,” ‘Aho said.

Among the upgrades to the infrastructure of TFA is their pitches, with which they hope to have six of, allowing them to host bigger OFC competitions and more football events in the future.

Photo credit: (TFA Home of Football)

To do that mean’s ensuring Tonga and their club teams are up to the standards of competing internationally, that’s something TFA is trying to change, starting in the football development space.

“I think we’ve learned a lot competing and with no good results. We are not just looking internally we are looking for players from overseas. I think that will be the next step. But I’d rather have my local talent trained to that level,” said ‘Aho.

In January, Laveni Vaka became the first Tongan female professional football player, after being drafted by Bay Football Club in the National Women’s Soccer League in the USA.

TFA remain committed to developing their home grown players, but they’re aware recruiting from overseas will only strengthen and boost football in the Kingdom. Those they’ve reached out to have already shown their interest in playing for Tonga, especially players from the United States.

“I think what we lack is the technical fitness and psychology. Look at the Solomon Islands team, the girls their are playing well. It’s all local talent and that is what I believe we can do if we nurture our local talent. We’re now starting to establish an academy here. I think in the long run, it will help us to achieve that,” says Lui.

Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek (Tonga at the Women’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament – Oceania Qualifier)

However, opportunities in football in Tonga aren’t just limited to playing. ‘Aho couldn’t stress enough the hard work being done with the nation’s referee programme, to make it one of the strongest in the region.

“OFC is embarking on this professionalism, professional teams and so forth. We in Tonga are not on the pipeline of professional players and so forth. What we’re thinking is getting refereeing, upgrading our referee to be in the professional level, why not just push the referee and get our teams over too,” said ‘Aho.

“When we look at the other requirements to have a professional team, we cannot. No team here in Tonga can or even in most of the Oceania region. To have a stadium, to have all those things, it’s impossible. But we rather push for professional referees.”

The goal at Tonga Football Association is to ensure that every referee who picks up the whistle reaches their maximum potential both in ranking and performance.

Photo Credit: Tonga FA

The Cadets and Youth Refereeing curriculum are conducted and developed at Colleges and High Schools in the whole of Tonga.

Head of Refereeing, Tevita Vea, has been at the forefront of TFA’s programme, which has ten match officials working from OFC Elite to Academy level. But Vea says he still has work to do, as he looks to strengthen the referee development nationwide at all levels of football, futsal, and beach soccer.

“Developing referees at the four regional islands in Tonga; Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai and ‘Eua, will guarantee that we are developing referees at all levels of the game from junior to senior,” said Vea.

“It’s not magic but it’s hard work, commitment, and sacrifice. All referees of whom live by the Association’s values and expectations will no doubt foster a nourishing domestic game and improve football – the game we love.”