Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek

Something special is happening on the Tongan island group of Ha’apai. The sparsely populated group of more than 17 islands is home to fewer than 6,000 people and 500 of them play Beach Soccer.

The area was devastated by the fall-out from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption in January last year but is on the road to recovery.

And now the national team is in Tahiti preparing to play the two times FIFA World Cup runners-up in their opening match of the OFC Beach Soccer Nations Cup in Papeete.

Four years ago the Tongans were thrashed 23-1 by the Tahitians, but then the sport was still in its infancy in the Kingdom, having only really begun in 2015.

It was the brainchild of OFC Beach Soccer Manager Paul Toohey, who encouraged Tongan FA Technical Director Kilifi Uele, himself a household name in Tongan Football, to introduce the sport to Tonga.

Penisimani Fatafehi is coaching Tonga at his first OFC Beach Soccer Nations Cup and his entire team hail from Ha’apai, which as he explains is a natural home for Beach Soccer.

“I’m happy for what Tonga Football decided to do, for me it’s a brilliant idea. In Tonga we have five association members and Tonga Football decided to let Ha’apai be Beach Soccer only because it’s called the sandy island.

“There are more beautiful beaches on Ha’apai, great sand on the beach, which every village on every island can access. So it’s going to be simple. In Tongatapu it would be hard to make good sandy pitches. Now we have 42 teams participating in Beach Soccer in Ha’apai,” Fatafehi explained.

The game has become so popular it’s starting to challenge Rugby’s dominance and a school’s competition will start next year.

“Ha’apai Island feels excited because they got the chance to represent Tonga. And not only that, but we do have some coaching courses starting at the grassroots.

“The chance to play Beach Soccer is not only for men, but both women and men and for young girls and young boys. And everyone in Ha’apai has access to Beach Soccer and we will start a school’s competition next year. Beach Soccer is becoming a big sport in the islands of Ha’apai, and it is challenging rugby as the popular sport,” Fatafehi beamed.

Fatafehi is realistic to know his team faces an enormous challenge against teams like the Solomon Islands and Tahiti whom they play in their opening match today in Papeete.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us when we face Tahiti and the Solomon Islands because they are professional players. We don’t have professional players so the experience will give us some learnings and when we get back to Tonga, we can put what we learn into practice.”

Establishing competitions with high participation rates has given Fatafehi a good problem to have, team selection.

“It was quite difficult to pick who’s going to represent Tonga because we have numbers of players, but I just picked those with good discipline.”

The coach is a realist but expects his side will prove more competitive than they were in the 2019 tournament

“We are proud to come to Tahiti to participate at the OFC Beach Soccer Nations Cup. There are just two players in the squad from the 2019 team, but I expect we can do better than four years ago.”

Tonga’s captain and goalkeeper Lemeki Taufa is excited for the opportunities that lie ahead for his side.

“I’m very glad to be participating in this game. We know that Tahiti are stronger than us but we’ve been preparing enough in order to face them tomorrow.

“I send my love to all Tongans and hope that all Tongans can support us as we represent our country. We will do our best and hope that we will achieve what we have been training for,” Taufa said.