Sheepish smiles and tentative handshakes marked the early morning as the teams for the inaugural OFC U-12 Festival of Football assembled at the team accommodation unsure of what the cultural day had in store for them.

Some hours later the smiles were wide and the laughter loud as the boys returned to Lautoka after a day packed with cultural activities and exchange.

The OFC U-12 Festival of Football is removed from the traditional tournament format by introducing a compulsory cultural element to the football aspect of the event. All teams were required to partake in a day of cultural exchange designed to promote understanding between players and of their surroundings and create friendships with their Fijian peers.

First stop for the teams was a visit to a local primary school to spend a morning with the students and staff. The school would then “adopt” the team for the duration of the Festival providing well received vocal support at Ba’s Govind Park.

“This has been great for our kids,” noted a New Zealand team official.

“Often the kids see pictures in brochures and imagine that is what all the country is like, but to be able to come to a school and see what its like for kids their age is awesome. Hopefully they take away a better understanding of Oceania from this experience”

All teams were treated to cultural performances from their hosts and for some it was a real eye-opener.

“Some of the lads didn’t really know what was going on, but we gave as good as we got,” noted another kiwi official after his side performed a spirited haka for their hosts.

For Papua New Guinea the exchange provided an experience in religious differences after their visit to Ba Muslim School.

“Coming from a predominately Christian country it was really beneficial for our boys to see how different kids from the Pacific are taught and that despite the different beliefs or dress, deep down they are all just kids at heart”

After the school visit the teams were treated to an afternoon in French culture courtesy of Alliance Francaise who are based in Fiji. The winner of the football aspect of the Festival will travel to Lyon, France in September and the lessons will come in handy for the traveling team.

The cultural participation doesn’t end there for the teams who are required to perform a cultural piece for the crowds on Match Day 1 of the Festival.