Photo Credit: OFC Media via Ryan Temu (FTF)

Having secured a semi-final place at the OFC U-16 Women’s Championship 2023 following their second place finish in Group A, Tonga spent time away from the pitch during a visit to the Centre de la Fraternité Chrétienne de Handicapés in Papeete.

The local school, which supports children who live with physical and/or cognitive disabilities, warmly welcomed the Tongan squad with traditional Tahitian music and song, followed by a tour of the facilities and football games for the students to show off their skills.

For the Tongan side, the visit provided an opportunity to reset and move on from their disappointing defeat to hosts Tahiti in their final group stage match. The 2-1 reverse means that they now face the daunting task of a semi-final against free-scoring New Zealand on Saturday (Tahiti time).

The Tonga squad with students and staff from the Centre de la Fraternité Chrétienne de Handicapés

For Head Coach Lafaele Moala, this is a familiar experience. As well as leading his Tonga side, Moala works as part of OFC’s Just Play programme back in his home nation. Just Play is delivered across OFC’s Member Associations and helps to promote physical activity for primary-aged children while encouraging community involvement and healthy living.

As part of his role, Moala works with children who live with disabilities, and knows very well the value of community visits such as this, for both the children themselves and his team.

“Back home I visit a centre for children with disabilities two times a week and I’m so excited to be here and for our girls. I think this is their first experience of visiting a disability centre like this,” Moala explained.

Beyond Lafaele’s role in Just Play, he has also enjoyed considerable success working in a coaching capacity with athletes living with disabilities. In 2015 he was part of the coaching team for Tonga at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles, where four of the Tongan team earned medals.

Players share their love for football with local students.

In his current position as Head Coach of the U-17 national side, Moala is conscious of the positive impact visits such as this can have on his squad as they prepare for a semi-final appearance.

“I keep telling them [my team] that if they look at these children with disabilities, that despite the difficulties they face in life, they still try to reach the finishing line.”

Having made it to the final four in Papeete, Moala is keen to ensure his side can move on from the loss to Tahiti during the week and focus on their semi-final opportunity.

“We were expecting to win but Tahiti really deserved it. They fought from the first minute to the last but we’re still excited as we’ve made it to the semi-finals.

“New Zealand is a top, top team in this competition but like I’ve said, if you want to be the best you’ve got to beat the best!”

With the group stages behind them and just 90 minutes away from a dream final appearance, Moala and his side will be hoping to spring an all-time shock on Saturday when they face off against the Kiwis in what will surely prove to the biggest test yet of his young side’s credentials.

OFC U-16 Women’s Championship 2023
Semi-Final 2
New Zealand v Tonga | WATCH LIVE
Saturday, September 23