New Caledonia football is in mourning following the passing of former national team goalkeeper and coach Michel Clarque this week at the age of 72.

A man with a heart of gold and a strong desire to create meaningful opportunities for youth across New Caledonia both inside and out of the football community, Clarque’s most recent football roles included leading the women’s national team at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa, and coaching FC Gaïtcha in the Super Ligue.

Clarque represented New Caledonia from 1974 to 1979 and appeared in two Pacific Games during that time, in Guam in 1975 and Fiji in 1979.

Domestically, he played the majority of his football with Saint-Jean Baptiste de Hnathalo and FC Gaïtcha. As a coach, he worked with Hienghène Sport, winning the Coupe de Calédonie in 2013, FC Gaïtcha, and AS Lössi.

The former teacher and school principal also had a stint as the men’s national team coach in 2002 and was a member of the Fédération Calédonienne de Football Conseil Fédéral (Executive Committee) from 2016 to 2020.

New Caledonia President Gilles Tavergeux paid tribute to a key figure in football in their nation.

“He made a mark, firstly, as a goalkeeper, having begun making a name for himself when he played at Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Hnathalo, in Lifou, where he was a teacher. Then at FC Gaïtcha. I had the good fortune to work with him as a goalkeeper as we were preparing for the national team in ’79, for the Pacific Games in Fiji,” Tavergeux said.

“Then he went a step further and got his coaching diplomas. He was the first Caledonian coach to qualify a team from the country for a World Cup, in Tahiti, with the youth, he qualified New Caledonia for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which was held in India.

“He loved football, he even played to a certain level. He could have even played in France, he was a great goalkeeper.”

Clarque will most notably be remembered for his role in leading New Caledonia’s U-17s to the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first time as coach of the youth squad during their qualifying campaign in 2017.

To date, he remains the only New Caledonian coach to have led a team successfully through qualification to a FIFA World Cup tournament, and was involved in the finals tournament in India in 2017 as manager after handing the reins to Dominique Wacalie.

New Caledonia’s youth team celebrates qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek

Léon Waitronyie, assistant coach to Clarque during that successful qualifying campaign, said he had fond memories of a man who gave an incredible amount to the development of football in New Caledonia.

“Michel always gave his all to football. He was a true fanatic, with his strengths and weaknesses like everyone, but his biggest strength was the wholehearted work he did to help advance New Caledonian football, which he loved,” Waitronyie said.

“Of course we will always have incredible memories of what we shared on the pitch. Michel was always there to encourage us. As a player, and also as a coach at Olympique, it was him who took me through my Brevet d’Etat. As a former school principal and teacher, he had a real ease for teaching, especially with young players.

“I recently spoke to him on the phone, his last words to me were: ‘I hope that we see each other really soon on the field’.”

Courtesy of Pasifika Sisters