Social media campaign to unearth players paying dividends for Cook Islands

Cook Islands men's national football team in action against Tonga. Photo: OFC

From Asia to the Netherlands, the Cook Islands national team is casting its net ever wider in search of players.

With a population smaller than the West Coast and with both codes of rugby popular, the Cook Islands Football Association has been struggling with a talent issue.

A social media campaign is aimed at unearthing players with Cook Islands heritage led by the scouting team of Alastair McLae and Russ Gurr.

One recent result of that campaign is the enlisting of Masterton-born forward Tremaine Rimene-Albrett of Douglas Villa FC but who is expected to sign for a Central League club soon.

After his initial contact, the CIFA quickly processed his application and made sure he was on the plane for Honiara for the Pacific Games at the end of last year.

“He’s now one of the mainstays of the team,” says senior men’s and U-19s coach Jess Ibrom.

“He’s got the right profile and when he moves on, he’ll be at a great club that really looks after young and promising players.”

Jess Ibrom … ‘no substitute for playing games.’

Jess Ibrom … ‘no substitute for playing games.’ Photo: Supplied

Another capture from the Facebook campaign is Charlie Noovoa-Martin, just 17, and one of four teenagers in the squad that contested the recent Oceania Nations Cup qualifiers.

The team agonisingly lost 1-0 to Samoa in its opening match which ensured Samoa’s qualification for the group stage. But the Cooks bounced back from that disappointment with a 1-0 defeat of Tonga with Melbourne-based Taylor Saghabi netting before half-time.

A goalkeeper playing in south-east Asia and a midfielder based in Australia are also on the radar but their commitment to the island nation hadn’t been confirmed at the time of writing.

Furthermore, Ibrom is hoping Ben Mata will be available for the World Cup qualifiers later this year.

Mata, who leads New Zealand champions Wellington Olympic, is a former New Zealand youth international who qualifies for the Cooks as he has not played at senior level for Aotearoa.

He captained the Cook Islands in their March 2022 World Cup qualifier against Solomon Islands. Mata’s brother Max is a regular for New Zealand and so ineligible to switch allegiance.

The squad for the Nations Cup qualifiers contained nine players who are based overseas: five of them are in Australia, three in New Zealand and one, Ngereine Maro, is on the books of RPC Eindhoven in Holland.

“Ngereine plays at a very good level in Holland and you can see how confident he is on the ball as a product of playing in Europe,” says Ibrom, who has had spells as technical director of Samoa and as head coach of Tasman United in New Zealand.

After falling out of the FIFA rankings due to COVID-induced inactivity, the Cook Islands contested the Pacific Games in November as well as last month’s Oceania qualifiers, while the U-19s are currently in Vanuatu for their regional qualifiers.

Ibrom says game time is important, and he hopes a follow-up tour of Auckland earlier this year – when they played Eastern Suburbs and Fencibles United – can be arranged to help the predominantly young squad to gel.

“There’s no substitute for games and those two matches in Auckland were invaluable so we could all get together from different places. For logistical reasons, Auckland is ideal for all the team, so hopefully we can line up some games again ahead of the Oceania World Cup qualifiers later in the year. The FA is also trying to improve the game locally which will obviously help the squads in the long run.”

At the Pacific Games in Honiara, the Cook Islands defeated old rivals Tonga 2-1 but struggled when stepping up against regional powerhouse New Caledonia, succumbing 8-0.

That gap is something Ibrom aims to close.

“We want to break out of that bottom group of nations which needs to qualify for every tournament. We want to be at the highest level in Oceania both at club and national level. To do that we both have to develop local players and look for good players outside the Cooks.”

*Craig Stephen writes about football for a number of publications, and for RNZ. He is the author of Bombs and Boots, a book that tells how New Zealand football came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

Source: RNZ