Tonga’s national beach soccer side ‘Tautahi’ will create a slice of footballing history when they embark on their maiden international tournament at the OFC Beach Soccer Nations Cup 2019 hosted by Tahiti between 17 and 22 June.
The team, which originates from the islands of Ha’apai in the central part of Tonga, was first introduced to the sand-based game during an OFC course in 2015.
Fast-forward four years and these Tongan beach soccer pioneers are on the verge of their international debut at a major continental tournament.
The newcomers are one of five teams, alongside hosts Tahiti, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to compete at the OFC Beach Soccer Nations Cup for Oceania’s sole qualifying spot at FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Paraguay 2019.
OFC Beach Soccer Development Officer Paul Toohey, who has overseen the Tongan project from the outset, says it’s fitting that Tautahi enters the international stage in French Polynesia.
“It is a special occasion because the idea of Tonga beach soccer actually began here in Papeete, during FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Tahiti 2013.
“Kilifi Uele, the Technical Director attended the tournament and the FIFA Beach Soccer Workshop and presented his vision for finding a place for the sport in Tongan football, and here we are six years later with that plan starting to come to fruition,” said Toohey.
Harbouring a deep passion for Tongan beach soccer it’s a proud moment for Uele who is in Tahiti as a playing member of the team.
“It’s a historical moment for Tongan football”, he said.
“We are new in this form of football, but beach soccer is part of our vision for our game as a whole.
“Beach soccer can play a big part in our technical development and it can help us to take the game to the remote outer islands,” added Uele.
Tautahi’s first ever international match couldn’t be any tougher considering their opponent is tournament favourites Tahiti.
Twice World Cup runners up, the hosts are one of the best teams in the world and will pose a formidable challenge for the debutants.
Despite the enormous task ahead, Uele is adamant his side is excited about the occasion.
“It’s part of our mission to be at the world stage against the best. As far as our team’s preparations go, we know we need to be more organised in terms of our structure to make our game against Tahiti a bit more competitive and also entertaining at this level,” he said.
“We will be underdogs but I believe if our players stick to what we have taught them about their roles and responsibilities we can make the game very competitive.
Tautahi skipper Sione Takelo says his side is not underestimating the challenge but are ready to give everything they have against one of the top teams in the world.
“We are excited and can’t wait to start the game.
“You can see my team, how hard we prepared for this tournament and we are not afraid of Tahiti, we will fight till the last moment and I feel my team can overcome any challenge we face,” Takelo insisted.
Despite the enormity of Tautahi’s task, Toohey is keen to focus on the milestone of the team’s first participation in an international tournament and the bright future for the game in Tonga.
“It’s a difficult tournament for them because they are young and new to the sport and they are going to play one of the best teams in the world, but they have been training hard and are most certainly ready to make their first step into the international arena.
“On Tuesday (local time) they will make history, and whatever happens for Tonga in this tournament they can look back with great pride at this defining moment,” said the OFC Beach Soccer Development Officer.