Cook Islands jumped eight places in the most recent FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking to 102. It might seem a modest achievement for some, but in context it is a significant achievement, one which was has been the product of concerted planning and sheer commitment.
At just 16,000 inhabitants, Cook Islands is a tiny nation – one of FIFA’s smallest members. Yet the country’s populace are spread over an enormous distance throughout the archipelago, an area that would cover a large chunk of western Europe. It means the logistics of identifying and training players are often challenging.
Yet Cook Islands bounced back from a disappointing FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ qualifying campaign in late 2018 – they lost all three matches – to reach the semi-finals of the Pacific Games. That recent success has the Polynesians in sight of their best position of 91, set all of 16 long years ago.
The nations which is is more renowned for its sun-kissed tropical beaches and azure blue waters, now sits seventh of Oceania nations. Despite their limited natural resources, Cook Islands are intent on building a bright future. They hosted the recent OFC U-19 Women’s Championship at their spectacular home venue (see below), and have competed in each of the past three senior continental championships – one of just four nations to do so.
Cook Islands’ ambitions for their national team were evident to Dutch coach Judith Kuipers when she assumed the senior team reins earlier this year, saying at the time: “The fact that they contract a coach from the Netherlands tells me that they are very serious and that they aspire to develop football in the Cook Islands.”
Kuipers led the team to three successive Pacific Games group-stage wins – a rare achievement for any of the nation’s international sides. They then lost out to Oceania’s traditional No2 Papua New Guinea in the semi-final, and 2018 continental runners-up Fiji in the medal play-off.
The process of engagement with women’s football comes from the ground up. The Cook Islands Football Association (CIFA) will only register a club if it has a senior and youth women’s team within its structure.
Women’s football has been played within the archipelago since the turn of the millennium, with approximately one in 15 female inhabitants registered to play football.
Netball, though, remains the nation’s most popular female sport, with the national team winning gold at the recent Pacific Games. However, hosting of the recent U-19 continental championship, and its U-16 equivalent three years ago, means there is significant awareness of women’s football.
CIFA say their next step is to employ a full time women’s development officer, with an intention to complement that appointment with hosting more women’s football-specific coaching courses.
Cook Islands’ upward trajectory at international level is evidence that the longest of successful journeys can begin with the smallest of steps.