Age group international football requires you to learn on the job. Quickly. 

In Oceania, most players get their first taste of international football, and often international travel, when they go to the OFC U-16 Championship, in the hope of winning a place at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. 

With FIFA World Cup qualification on the line and a lot to learn in a short space of time, there can be a huge experience gap between players and countries at qualifiers, exacerbating the pressure on players.

It’s this gap that OFC and UEFA teamed up to bridge through the U-15 Development Tournament, now having just finished its second edition in Nadi, Fiji – and the first for girls.

“For some of us, this is our first tournament,” Tonga’s Losaline Tu’utafavia (holding the pennant below) explained to OFC after her side’s game against Fiji.

“I learned sacrifices like spending time with family and friends to represent our country.”

(Photo Credit OFC Media via Kirk Corrie)

To give the players insight into what it takes to make it to the top Kirsty Yallop, former New Zealand national team centurion, was on hand to offer her expertise. 

“I shared a bit about my own personal journey with the girls:, the highs, the lows and everything in between, as well as things that can hopefully help them be successful on their journey.”

Yallop also drew on her recent work in strength and conditioning programme development and time as part of FIFA’s technical advisory group for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023.

“I also talked a little bit more around female health as well to help their understanding in that area,” she said.

(Photo Credit OFC Media via Kirk Corrie)

Current New Zealand national team players Grace Jale and Mackenzie Barry joined Yallop for a few days with the teams as tournament ambassadors. They were impressed by the tournament concept and the benefits it offered participants.

“Going from just playing at club or school to international football is a huge jump,” Jale explained. 

“The atmosphere is different, the facilities are different and even walking out onto the pitch and all that kind of stuff is different. It’s good to give them a bit of a taster with the travel as well.”

“Hopefully it just gives those players a little more time to develop so they’ll feel more confident and familiar with what’s involved when they come to the under 16 qualifiers,” Barry added.

“They know what to expect with facilities, like what they should be getting because I know OFC organised all the facilities for this development tournament, whereas at qualifiers the host countries do that.

“Now the girls know what the standard should be and how they should be treated as international football players, it sets a really good precedent. And being exposed to those environments, being away from home, simple things like that will settle so many more nerves and hopefully prepare them more when it comes down to the more competitive matches,” Barry said.

Despite describing themselves as “reasonably new players with the Ferns in the grand scheme of things,” neither player is a complete stranger to the international game: Grace Jale was first called up to the senior national team as a 16-year-old, while Barry was part of the bronze medal-winning New Zealand U-17 side at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2018. 

“A lot of the girls knew who Grace is and were really excited to see her and talk to her. They had so many questions to ask her, especially about being Fijian,” said Barry. 

“To be seen as a role model to so many younger girls was really special. And it was so nice watching them come up to Grace: they just wanted any bit of information they could get out of her,” Barry laughed.

It brought back memories of herself in those moments, remembered Jale.

“Back then I would definitely be the quiet one in the corner just listening and not really asking the questions. But having someone to look up to really helped me with my goal setting,” remembered Jale.

The teams were more than happy to “pick our brains” on life as professional footballers during q and a sessions, Jale said.

“It was nice to see them engaged, and you could see their brains ticking over our answers.”


And what do the players think?

For Cook Islands goalkeeper Athena Nicholas, her eyes were opened to the opportunities in football.

“I took on soccer ’cause it’s very common. I wanted to do sport science, and I’m looking at refereeing and maybe helping future generations in this tournament.”

For New Caledonia’s captain Matha Bako, she came into the tournament with her eyes set on the prize of the upcoming U-16 Women’s Championship.

“It’s really good to get to see other teams, how they play, and to learn from them,” she told OFC. “It’ll allow us to be prepared for the qualifiers later on. For me it’s about being able to analyse and to see the other teams so I can better prepare for the World Cup qualifiers.”

While results weren’t the focus of the tournament, New Caledonia sealed the competition with a 3-0 victory over the hosts Fiji last night.