Football fans in Vanuatu are getting ready to witness the first visit of a professional club to the nation as the Central Coast Mariners of Australia’s A-League Men take part in the 2022 Friendship Cup.

That means a return to Vanuatu for national team captain Brian Kaltak, whose Mariners side will face the Vanuatu national team, a Vanuatu development team and current 2022 Port Vila champions Ifira Black Bird over the next week.

The Central Coast Mariners are currently fifth in this year’s A-League which is now on an enforced break with the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ about to get underway. This domestic hiatus allowed for an invitation to take part in the tournament to be accepted. With it comes a homecoming for Kaltak, who joined the Mariners after a trial period in September, his first professional deal at 29-years-old.

Mariners head coach Nick Montgomery already had an affinity for the island before signing their star player. He visited in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam shortly after his playing career ended. Back then the Mariners donated kit and supplies to devastated villages.

“We are really looking forward to meeting the Vanuatu people and playing the three games here,” Montgomery told OFC Media ahead of their opening game v Ifira Black Bird on Thursday, November 17.

“It is humbling. The people here are beautiful, and it is a beautiful island. They have really opened their arms to us. The boys are happy to be here and are looking forward to the three games.”

The tournament gives the Mariners, who have three players in Qatar as part of Graham Arnold’s Australia squad, a chance to keep sharp over the break period with 21 players, including some youngsters who are looking to impress, making the journey.

But it is also a chance to bring Kaltak back to his homeland and perhaps inspire the next generation.

“With Brian at the Mariners it was an opportunity to bring the team here, bring Brian back and the fans can obviously celebrate Brian,” said Montgomery.

“Brian’s journey is a special one. I find it hard to believe that nobody picked him up from his time in New Zealand as he is an unbelievable athlete, and he learns so quickly. I think everyone has seen in the early rounds of the A-League that he is a big talent.

“I am just humbled that I have been the one to give him his opportunity in professional football. He is a real pioneer for football in Vanuatu.”

The Central Coast Mariners team on arrival in Vanuatu. Photo credit: VFF.

As a footballer from the Pacific playing in the A-League Kaltak is a rarity, with former Wellington Phoenix striker Roy Krishna the other high-profile example. The A-League’s transfer system is set up to protect the development of domestic players, with only five foreign ‘visa players’ allowed to be registered to a club at any one time. It means players from the nearby Pacific Islands have a tough task in getting opportunities to break through into the competition.

Montgomery is pleased Kaltak has managed to make that leap but thinks there is an opportunity for more talented players from the region to play professional football in Australia.

“It would be an amazing thing to have a plus one quota player from Oceania. I know there is talk about Asia as well, but I don’t see why there can’t be one from Oceania when you have places like Fiji and players like Roy Krishna and obviously Brian now from Vanuatu.

“That’s a pathway that would be welcomed. At the moment it is very hard, you only have five Visa spots at every A-League club so to try and give up Visa spots is not easy, but I think Brian can be an inspiration for that as was Roy Krishna.

“Look there are good players out here they just need the platform and opportunity to perform at the highest level and that’s always the challenge.”

But while those opportunities are currently limited, it won’t stop Montgomery and the Mariners staff from keeping their eyes peeled for the next Brian Kaltak during this tour.

“We have got three games which give us an opportunity to look at players,” said Montgormery.

“No doubt every single player sees Brian as an inspiration that it is possible to come from Vanuatu and play in the A-League which is a top league and a very good standard. So, he’s a special boy and inspirational to every young kid in Vanuatu and throughout the Pacific Islands.”

Central Coast Mariners kick off their 2022 Friendship Cup campaign today, Thursday, November 17 from 6.00pm local time at the Korman Stadium in Port Vila. A full list of fixtures can be seen below.

2022 Friendship Cup

Location: Korman Stadium, Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Matchday One: November 17, 2022

2.00pm: Vanuatu v Vanuatu Development Team

6.00pm: Central Coast Mariners v Ifira Black Bird

Matchday Two: November 19, 2022

2.00pm: Ifira Black Bird v  Vanuatu Development Team

6.00pm: Vanuatu v Central Coast Mariners

Matchday Three: November 21, 2022

2.00pm: Ifira Black Bird v Vanuatu

6.00pm: Vanuatu Development Team v Central Coast Mariners

(All kick-offs are listed in local time)

You can follow updates on the action at the official Vanuatu Football Federation Facebook page here.