After three months of intense training and immersion into the New Zealand secondary school environment, the seven student-athletes who made up the inaugural intake of the OFC Education Centre returned to their home countries on Saturday.

The seven rising stars were celebrated in a prize giving ceremony on Friday night to acknowledge their achievements and farewell them as they travel back to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands.

The prize giving also recognised Solomon Islands’ Steward Toata with a trophy for Most Valuable Player at a Rotorua football tournament in early November. Although the trip south was a highlight for the young striker, his fondest memory will be the friendships built with his fellow teammates.

“Some of my favourite things were when we went on trips like Rotorua and had games, and our weekend in Rainbow’s End, and training and school as well,” he said.

“Our friendships are the best part because we’ve been around each other for a few weeks and now we’re getting closer like brothers.”

The bond between the seven student-athletes was also a highlight for Fijian Mohammed Naizal.

“My favourite part was meeting the boys because when I came in I didn’t know any of them, but as soon as I met them we became good friends,” he said.

“I tried to talk the way they talk so that I could be good friends with them. They saw me talking and they smiled and I knew then that these guys are happy to have me in the team. That was the best part, hanging around with the boys.”

The football training programme tested the student-athletes at times but they are all looking forward to taking the experience home with them, especially with the OFC U-17 Championship in Tahiti just around the corner.

“The trainings, some were hard and some were easier, but they will help when I go back to Vanuatu to try earn a spot in the U-17 team to go to Tahiti,” Vanuatu’s Abert Vanva said.

It’s a similar story for Conroy Tiputoa of the Cook Islands who said the trainings were one of the key aspects of the experience for him.

“The trainings have really helped improve my fitness and ball skills, especially my fitness. I was not very fit but after all the trainings I can now feel it getting better which is something I’m very grateful for,” he said.

Tiputoa credits his improvement on and off the field to the support from the OFC Education Centre coaching team.

“It was great being coached by Phil Parker because he’s an awesome coach,” he said.

“I learned a lot from him and I’m really thankful for all he’s done for me and the boys. On and off the field, our techniques, what to do physically and mentally, everything,” he said.

Samoan goalkeeper Pele Fatu also expressed his gratitude for the coaching team, in particular former All Whites goalkeeper James Bannatyne who worked closely with Fatu to improve his goalkeeping skills.

“Thank you to my coach James Bannatyne. He helped me with performance and skill when he trained me. I was very happy to have him as a coach,” he said.

After long goodbyes and collecting contact details, the student-athletes’ focus has now switched to continuing their football careers and setting themselves new goals to achieve.

“My goal now is to go home and make sure I maintain what I’ve been doing here. I’ll go home and keep doing the same,” Papua New Guinea’s Emmanuel Simongi said.

“When I go back I need to improve myself as a player, not only on the football field but also off the football field,” his Tongan teammate Viliami Alipate Tukia said.

OFC President David Chung’s vision of leaving a legacy in the region has been evident through the OFC Education Centre initiative, with the seven student-athletes returning to their domestic programmes and local football clubs and sharing their knowledge in order to empower more football players to become better people through football.

Additional information:

The OFC Education Centre – powered by AIA is a full-time pilot programme being implemented by the Oceania Football Confederation. Its purpose is to empower lives and develop high performance people by linking academic study with football learning led by OFC Education Centre coaching staff. Seven student-athletes from OFC Member Associations have been included in the inaugural intake, and will spend two terms at One Tree Hill College in Auckland, New Zealand.