Family and sport have always been closely intertwined.
It makes sense when you consider factors like shared interests, the common urge to follow in the steps of a sibling, cousin or older relative, and the idea that freakish DNA can be passed down through bloodlines.
Still, the sheer number of family members involved across the competing nations at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ Oceania Qualifiers is almost certainly unlike anything in world football right now, and speaks to the unique values of Oceania and the values the game is built on in this part of the world.
Whether you call it famille, whānau, vuvale, whāmere or something else completely, there’s plenty of it on display in Doha right now.
The Papua New Guinea squad has two sets of brothers in forwards Ati and Kolu Kepo and central defenders Alwin and Felix Komolong.
In a football sense, the Komolongs are living the sibling dream.
Partnering up at the heart of the Papua New Guinea defence, the pair – who are part German – are first-choice players in their respective positions and among the first names put down on the team sheet each match.
“We are brothers off the pitch and brothers and professionals on the pitch,” Alwin says when quizzed on the topic.
“We have a very good understanding between each other. We don’t have to say much to each other and we know what is expected.
“We do it the German way and get on with the job.”
It’s quite a different situation to try and navigate for Fijian siblings Anish Khem and Ashnil Raju.
Both right midfielders competing for a single starting spot in the Bula Boys’ team, they are directly competing with each other and joy for one will be, whether it’s publicly shown or not, disappointment for the other on some level.
It’s clear however that the bond between them is too strong to allow any awkwardness or ill feelings to come through.
“Whoever doesn’t play, their brother is playing, it’s a good thing either way, either I play or my brother plays,” Ashnil says.
“There are no bad feelings about it. We both want the best for each other. As long as one of us is in the 1st XII we are happy.”
In the Solomon Islands camp Molis Gagame Junior and Jerry Donga are joined by their uncle, Gagame Feni.
As the youngest of the trio, Molis has only started playing club and international football with Jerry and Gagame in the last few years, while Gagame and Jerry have grown up together, lining up for New Zealand high school Nayland College in the late 2000s before appearing together in countless local matches back home.
The natural family tree hierarchy would suggest uncle Gagame calls the shots, but Jerry is quick to assure us that’s not the case.
“I’m the oldest, so I look after them both!”
The trio all come from a long line of footballing talent, including Molis’ dad who was also a national team player.
Solomon Islands legend Benjamin Totori’s dad is also Gagame’s first cousin.
“We are pretty much always playing in the street when we are together as a family,” Gagame says.
“We’ll be playing and only stop when a truck goes past, then it’s back into it again.”
The family connections aren’t confined to on-field roles either, with Tahiti’s team doctor Jean-Marie Debruyne being the father of goalkeeper Anapa Debruyne, while one of New Zealand’s keepers, Matthew Gould, is being coach directly by his father Jonathan Gould, who is the All Whites’ goalkeeper coach.
When asked about having his 18-year-old son with him in national team camp, Jean-Marie struggles to hold back tears.
“I’m so proud and emotional,” he says.
“I was dreaming of this for so long. This is happened so quickly (for Anapa). I’m very, very happy.
“In camp there is no issue. I let him live his player life with his teammates.”
For Anapa, having his dad around to experience the trip with him has made his first call-up to the Tahiti senior team even more special.
“It has kept me motivated having him here and it is good to have him around. It is one of the first times I have travelled away from home,” Anapa says.
“The only thing is that in camp I call him dad, not doctor!”
Also in the Tahiti squad are brothers Teaonui and Roonui Tehau, along with their cousin Alvin Tehau.
The fascinating dynamic of two brothers playing in the same qualifying series for different nations was a real possibility as well pre-tournament, until New Zealand’s Max Mata wasn’t included in their final squad for Doha.
His older brother Ben captained the Cook Islands in their opening – and sadly only match due to COVID-19 – having earlier played age-group football for New Zealand.
Family links at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ Oceania Qualifiers
- Grover and Lee Harmon (brothers)
- Anish Khem and Ashnil Raju (brothers)
- Cedric and Jean-Luc Decoire (cousins)
- Jonathan Gould and Matthew Gould (father and son)
- Alwin and Felix Komolong (brothers)
- Ati and Kolu Kepo (brothers)
- Molis Gagame Junior, Jerry Donga, Gagame Feni (Molis and Jerry are cousins and Gagame is their uncle)
- Jean-Marie and Anapa Debruyne (father and son)
- Teaonui, Roonui and Alvin Tehau (Teaonui and Roonui are brothers and Alvin is their cousin)