Football is more than just a game for many with the camaraderie that comes with the team environment also an important factor for many players.
It’s exactly that bond between teammates which is inspiring Tonga pair Mohammad Rajani and Anthony Likiliki at the OFC U-19 Championship Qualifier in the Cook Islands this week.
Despite having only crossed paths for the first time a week before their departure for the tournament, midfielder Rajani and striker Likiliki have developed a tightknit bond which sets them apart both on and off the field.
“Like all friendships, it’s not always a balanced equation but it’s grounded in the feeling that you know exactly who will be there for you no matter what,” Likiliki said.
“Ever since I met him, I sort of see myself in him. The way he acts, it’s totally different from the rest. It’s like we have our own little world, the way we think, and the way we eat. I have just met him and I feel like we have this connection between each other and it seems to go right during the game” he added.
Likiliki , known as ‘Kina’ to his friends, debuted for Tonga at the 2015 OFC U-17 Championship in Pago Pago, American Samoa and has made several appearances for both club and country since then.
Among those experiences was being the youngest member of the Tonga squad which took part in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Qualifiers – OFC Stage 1 on home soil.
And Likiliki believes each tournament is a stepping stone for the next, with this week’s Qualifier another opportunity for him to showcase his skills, and those of his teammates.
“I was really preparing, training hard for this tournament,” Likiliki said.
“I’ve been working so much outside the pitch, I was just trying to be good, trying to improve, and it turned out well so far.”
The striker’s development has all taken place in his native Tonga, but it’s been a different journey for his new friend.
Rajani has grown up in Sydney, Australia where he’s been raised by his Tongan mother and Pakastani father.
Having kicked his first ball at a very young age with Apia Leichardt, his local club, Rajani’s development has been shaped in several different Sydney-based academies before he arrived in the NPL.
“I made my way to the NPL, which is our competition back in Sydney, New South Wales, and that’s where I play now,” he said.
Rajani has made several visits to Tonga with family but stated the decision to represent the nation was his.
“It was my choice alone to play for Tonga, to commit myself to the national team and give what I can to help Tonga,” Rajani said.
“My Tongan is not fluent but it doesn’t stop me from being close with the boys and with the staff and playing with the team so I am proud to be a Tongan.”
The Australia-based midfielder said his background is part of what has inspired his close friendship with Likiliki.
“We’re all close together but me and Kina, we are really close on and off the field, we help each other in everything and I think it shows on the field when we play together, we’re really strong,” Rajani said.
“I am close with all of the boys, but I think me and Kina have really grown closer because he speaks fluent English – most of the boys their English is…”
“They mock me when I can’t speak in Tongan properly but I mock them when they can’t speak English, so it’s funny.”
As for the strengthening bond with Likiliki, Rajani believes it will continue to show in their performances for Tonga.
“I think just the way we connect on the field; knowing where we are, where each other is, we know where to go at the right time, when to pass, when to shoot, when to run,” he said.
“Our relationship is strong of the field which makes it really strong when we get to the field. Kina’s a really good player, it’s good to play with him.”
For Likiliki the admiration is mutual.
“He seems to be really good on the ball and he’s also learned to adapt to the pressure, unlike us. We are not really used to the pressure with a lot of crowd here.”
“We have been able to learn a lot from him and it’s a pleasure to play alongside him.”
As well as finding a new family in his U-19 Tonga teammates, Rajani feels fortunate to have been able to make a visible contribution to the side’s success so far.
Making his maiden appearance, Rajani slotted in twice from the penalty spot to help Tonga secure an historic win over the Cook Islands at this level.
“When I scored my first penalty I just started crying, It was a really proud moment for me, my team, and the coaches. But especially me and my family, my family in Tonga they are really proud of me.”
“I just got really emotional after the first goal, and then the second goal, all I could think was thanks to God.”
Reliving the moment once again, Rajani said it was surreal.
“It still hasn’t hit me you know? Scoring two goals on my very first game for Tonga, it’s like the most perfect outcome that I could have asked for,” he stated.
“I just want to keep going from here. Get more goals for the team and do everything I can for us to win and advance to the finals in Tahiti.”
Likiliki was as happy his friend was on the scoresheet as Rajani was.
“I felt really happy for him. He’s played a huge part in the team, also I could say the backbone of the team,” Likiliki said.
“It felt really great, it was amazing, like we worked really hard, there’s a lot of sacrifices the boys have been making. It was pretty much all just team work, we work together we scored our goals and we won,” he added.
The duo are now expected to play key roles in Tonga’s final test on Friday 1 June (local) when they take on Samoa from 1.30pm to decide which side will progress to the OFC U-19 Championship in Tahiti in August.