It’s been over a year since the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai eruption and tsunami devastated Tonga, and lives are still far from normal.

The eruption on 15 January 2022 affected more than 80% of the population of Tonga, with an estimated 36,500 children impacted. It caused an estimated $90.4 million in damage with efforts continuing to clear damage, repair infrastructure and move people from temporary housing.

OFC and the Tonga Football Association have been able to support the recovery efforts in Tonga through the delivery of the Just Play Emergency Response Programme. The Programme recognises the important role that sport can play in the emotional recovery of children following a natural disaster. Developed by the Oceania Football Confederation and UNICEF, it builds on the Just Play programming platform, leveraging existing networks and content to support the dissemination of critical messages and support the emotional recovery of children following a natural disaster.

OFC Head of Social Responsibility Michael Armstrong said “we are seeing increasing rates of natural disasters hitting our region. Because of this, the Just Play Emergency Response Programme is becoming an important part of our work to promote the power of football to enhance the wellbeing of people across the Pacific.”

Working with local partners including the Tonga National Emergency Management Office, the programme was able to reach 5,050 participants across the affected islands of Eua, Ha’apai, Tongatapu and Vava’u.

10-year-old Talofi Finau talked about the impacts of the eruption: “I will never forget the loudness of the sound waves of the Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haapai volcanic eruption. I was frightened thinking that this might be the last day.”

“Everyone was shocked and looked worried. However, we had to leave our sister behind and drove back to our house. It was the scariest event of my life for in our way home I could see vehicles trying to head to high grounds.”

Tolofi comes from a family where her and her siblings all playing football both at school and the Laumanu Hina club. Being part of the Emergency Program helped her learn the drills of football, as well as weaving together skills and knowledge to support her psychosocial recovery. Her teachers noted the change in her from being a “quiet young girl”, to seeing her being active and engaged during the programme sessions. She is happy, she laughs and she is better able to cope and assist her classmates.

78 percent of teachers involved in the programme reported the children being happier while 87 percent believed the programme assisted with the communities psychosocial recovery from the eruption and tsunami.

Another child to have benefited from Just Play Emergency Response is nine-year-old Fanueli Fanga’i’uiha, from Patangata. His family’s house was destroyed by the tsunami, because of his experience he became numb and stiff, and blacks out when he is scared or tired.

His teacher said that once Fanueli became involved in the program, he could see him smile, run a bit, move around and also slowly gaining strength and confidence.

“I saw Fanueli as a role model and a life changer. He didn’t see his weaknesses as something to hold him back from joining other children playing,” his teacher said.

The most important part of Just Play Emergency Response has been how the lives of children affected by the natural disaster have been able to use the power of football to help them recover.

“I never thought that I will be able to come to the football academy since that day because of what I’d experienced,” said Tolofi.

OFC will continue to offer support to affected communities through the Just Play Emergency Response Programme with plans to roll out delivery in Vanuatu following the dual cyclones Kevin and Judy which hit within 48 hours of each other in March 2023. OFC have also announced further plans to develop a Just Play Emergency Preparedness curriculum in 2023 to assist all communities to be ready when disasters hit.

Armstrong said: “Stories like Fanueli and Tolofi’s highlight the immense power of football to support individuals and communities. With climate change presenting such a threat to our region, we are accelerating plans to ensure our sport and our participants are as resilient as possible when these disasters inevitably hit.”

The Just Play Emergency Response Programme was developed with the support of UNICEF. Its delivery is made possible due to long-standing partnerships with Australian Aid through the Team Up Programme, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the UEFA Foundation for Children.