Photo Credit: OFC Media via Tonga FA

With a population of just over 17,000, Cook Islands are the smallest member association in FIFA, but that hasn’t stopped the South Pacific nation of dreaming big.

Cook Islands men’s team spent seven years in the football wilderness before returning to the international scene in March 2022. Limited games have meant minor moves in the FIFA Men’s rankings, with the team currently sitting 185th in the world.

A ranking that Head Coach Jess Ibrom and the Cook Islands Football Association (CIFA) are investing a significant amount of time and work into in order to improve, and it all starts with the country’s national academies.

“We’ve got multiple age groups, all the way from U-11s now, all the way through to the national team. So, for us it’s all about developing those players on the ground and in Rarotonga, so, we’re better prepared for future internationals, and competitions around the region.

“It’s really driving that development up as much as possible, which has resulted in a number of players coming in weekly now. So, you know, we’ve got some Cook Island players that I feel are going to be real rising stars in the future,” said Jess Ibrom.

Photo Credit: CIFA Media

Work that’s already turned into results for the Cook Islands men’s national team. At the OFC Men’s Nations Cup 2024 – Qualifying (OMNCQ), they narrowly lost to Samoa, before pulling off a 1-0 win against hosts Tonga, for just their second win in three years.

A tournament that saw five players make their debut for the Cook Islands, two of which were 18, while another was just 17-years-old. Another example of CIFA’s worldwide recruitment system for footballers with Cook Islands heritage, yielding positive results.

“For us it’s about driving those domestic based programmes, but also casting our net as far and wide as we can. We’re getting a lot of traction and interest with that, it’s a continuous process, it takes time. But we’re certainly always on the lookout for eligible Cook Island players that could represent the national teams that are at the required level,” explained Ibrom.

Photo Credit: OFC Media via Tonga FA

The hope is that by bringing in overseas players it will increase the standards of football, which will in turn help the Cook Islands men’s and women’s senior teams be competitive and successful on the international stage.

“Build a very good environment for the players and the staff. And we’re just going to continue to add layers to that through every tournament we have up and coming. Games are important, games are key for us. Obviously, we’ve got some targeted games now that we’ve always started to prepare for in September.  There’s great initiatives like the FIFA Series currently taking place. That’s things that we want to be part of, because it helps to drive the game at the international level for us,” continued Ibrom.

The pilot phase of the FIFA Series gave opportunities to three member associations located in the Oceania region; New Zealand, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea. Each team played friendly matches against national teams from different confederations. An initiative the Cook Islands wouldn’t mind being involved in.

“As you know there’s a strategy in place from FIFA. They want to see the smaller nations have more opportunities to compete against countries they wouldn’t usually compete against. And for us, it drives the level of competition up so yeah, most definitely, this is a strategy we’re really keen to get onto if the opportunity arises.”

But until that happens, the focus for Ibrom is to elevate the status of the Cook Islands men’s team in the Oceania Football Confederation and develop a successful and sustainable football model.

That starts not just with the players but those at the top teaching them, which new National Technical Director Matt Campbell has been brought in to help with.

“It’s really important strategy for the association itself. We’re driving the domestic-based player development programmes. Now we need to layer on top of that the coach education. We’ve got some very good coaches on the ground in Rarotonga, and we just have to continually up-skill those coaches.

“I know the Technical Director is working really hard to enable that process to really start sooner rather than later. So, we’re looking forward to developing good people and good coaches as well,” said Ibrom