Photo Credit: OFC Media via Tonga FA

Tonga’s first professional player, Ata Inia, is already making his impact felt on the game of football despite not having set foot on the field for his country.

At the end of 2020, Inia, committed his allegiance to Tonga despite representing his birth country, Australia, at U-18 level. Over three years later, the lightning-fast winger has still yet to play for the Kingdom.

Playing in Thailand for Phrae United, Inia was named in the squad for Tonga at the recent OFC Men’s Nations Cup 2024 – Qualifying (OMNC) but was unable to make his debut at the tournament due to passport issues.

Despite the setbacks, his dedication to playing for the Tu’ulalupe remains stronger than ever after his first trip back to the Kingdom in ten years.

“It’s good to connect with the boys and to get to know them. This is a project that we’re starting here in Tonga for our football, that we hope to grow in the next 5-10 years,” said Inia.

“It’s been great to be a part of it and to try and put as much impact in as I can. Offloading the knowledge that I’ve learned living overseas as a professional footballer to the boys and helping them grow themselves as people and as footballers.”

Tonga’s campaign at the OMNC qualifying event didn’t go as planned as they failed to register a single win. However, coach Kilifi Uele was able to introduce four players under the age of 20 to the national side. Players that got the pleasure of training alongside and learning from Tonga’s only professional player throughout the campaign.

“On the training field I’m sort of encouraged to lift the intensity a lot. It’s a big jump from the level that Tonga is at now to professional level, obviously. So just lifting the intensity, making sure that our laughing, happy culture doesn’t take over too much when we cross that training line. And just letting the young boys enjoying themselves, you know, we have a lot of talent in the local players still.

“Just making sure they understand that, you know, it’s a game we need to enjoy ourselves and express ourselves on the field as much as possible. I’m sure as I’m involved over a couple more years, the football will grow here,” said Inia.

“A lot of potential. The physicality here in the team is really good, very good, everyone is strong and fast. Just need to include other aspects of football into our itinerary, I guess.  There’s a lot of positives I took here that I thought that I wouldn’t get when I came here, and obviously, there’s a lot of stuff to work on as well. But overall, I was definitely surprised at the talent and the physical level of the players here,” he continued.

Vice-captain Mohammad Rajani said it was “a huge honour” for him, and the younger players to have someone of Ata’s calibre in the squad, to learn from and to inspire not just the Tu’ulalupe but all the young footballers in Tonga.

Inia hopes his presence at the OFC Men’s Nations Cup 2024 – Qualifying and subsequent tournaments will be the start of something big for the future of football in Tonga.

“I hope in the next few years, we’ll have a few more actually. I know there’s a lot of boys from overseas, Australia, New Zealand, America that are keen to come and represent our little island. So yeah, I’m sure in the next 10-15 years we’ll have a few more.”

Inia’s next chance to run out for Tonga will be at the FIFA World Cup™ 2026 – Oceania Qualifiers later this year.