Whatever hurdles the All Whites face, they pale when compared to the efforts being made to bring together squad members for Oceania World Cup qualifying tournament outsiders Cook Islands.
New Zealand head coach Danny Hay knows he may struggle to have all his top-flight professional players available for the start of the tournament on March 18.
But his counterpart for the Cook Island national team, English-born coach Alan Taylor, has had to select players he has not met, let alone seen on the training pitch.
Some of his squad will meet for the first time next week when they gather in Doha, Qatar, where the eight-nation tournament will be staged.
Taylor told Cook Island News:
“Due to players being so spread out and Covid restrictions, we have not been able to train or play as a squad, nor have I been able to visit any of the overseas-based players to watch them play or train as well as assess their physical condition or readiness for the competition in Qatar.”
Main photo: Rarotonga-based members of the Cook Islands squad. Source: CIFA.
Squad includes a number of Lotto NRFL players
Many of Taylor’s squad have played their football for New Zealand clubs, mostly in Auckland, and they have drawn on a diverse group that includes Rarotonga locals, players in Australia and London — and, yes, a stand-up comedian from Palmerston North.
His eight Rarotonga-based players have been able to train with some of the New Zealand-based players on three or four evenings a week since December.
The Cook Islands team are so much the tournament longshots, they don’t even make the FIFA world rankings list.
The lowest-ranked Oceania side is Tonga (199th in the pecking order) and they withdrew from the World Cup last month after a volcanic eruption and tsunami struck the island nation, enabling Cook Islands to take the eighth spot at the qualifying tournament in Qatar.
The Cook Island squad includes players with national and regional league experience in New Zealand. They include:
Harlem Simiona (29) midfield
One of the team’s most experienced players, Simiona has played for Ngongotaha FC since 2013, appearing in the WaiBOP Premiership and Lotto NRFL. He’s eligible for selection through his grandfather, and has been in the national squad for six years.
Ben Mata (23) defender
The brother of All White Max Mata, Auckland-born Mata represented New Zealand at U-17 level before opting to play for the Cook Islands. He’s played for Wellington Olympic for the past three seasons, helping them to last year’s Central League title, and was part of Team Wellington’s national title-winning squad in 2020-21.
He’s previously played for Papakura City, Papatoetoe United, Wellington United and Onehunga Sports.
Orin Ruaine-Prattley (24) defender
The joker in the pack. He’s a writer/digital marketer by day and a budding stand-up comedian by night (“getting the loudest laughs from the subtlest punchlines”, according to the Wellington Comedy website).
The former Palmerston North Boys High School player will soon also add World Cup player to his CV.
His New Zealand clubs include Marist FC (Manawatu), Miramar Rangers and more recently, Brooklyn Northern United, who play in the Capital League First Division.
Maro Bonsu-Maro (25) forward
He spent the last two seasons at Manukau United after spells with Central United and Auckland City. Born in New Zealand, Bonsu-Maro has a Ghanaian father and a Pukapukan (Cook Islands) mother.
Emiel Burrows (29) forward
Burrows has spent most of the past five years with club Oratia United who play in the Lotto NRFL second division, and he’s had one spell with Glen Eden United and the briefest of stays at Waitemata FC.
Grover Harmon (32) midfielder
Rarotonga-based Harmon spent a season with Papatoetoe AFC in his early 20s.
Tyrell Barringer-Tahiri (27) defender
London-based Barringer-Tahiri will take leave from his job as a personnel recruiter to play in the qualifiers. Born in Dunedin, he’s played for Southern United, Roslyn-Wakari and Tasman United, more recently. He currently plays for AFC South London in the Southern Sunday Football League.
Ishaq Nazeem (30) defender
He played last year for Manurewa AFC in the Lotto NRFL after four seasons with Manukau United. He suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in 2017, forcing him to play social football as a way back into the game.
Avi Enoka (20) defender
Recently returning to live in Rarotonga, Enoka played his two most recent club seasons with Ellerslie in the Lotto NRFL and has turned out for Tupapa Maraerenga in the OFC Champions League.
Lee Harmon (20) midfielder/forward
Another player who has turned out for Ellerslie, he has appeared in three OFC Champions League series for Cook Islands’ club Tupapa Maraerenga.
Daryl Areai (20) midfielder
Another New Zealand-based footballer, Areai played for Otago University in 2019 and 2021.
Other Rarotonga-based squad members are:
Anthony Samuela (Tupapa Maraerenga FC), Tahiri Elikana (Nikao Sokattak FC), Toru Mateariki (Nikao Sokattak FC), Tamaiva Mateariki (Nikao Sokattak FC), Dwayne Tiputoa (Puaikura FC), Jarves Aperau (Puaikura FC).
Sydney-based: Kerim Kumsuz, Ismail Hadife, Taylor Saghabi.
Melbourne-based: Thane Beal.
Management team: Alan Taylor (coach), Paul Farrell-Turepu (manager), Teina Savage (assistant manager), Dr Teariki Puni (doctor) and Gareth O’Loughlin (physio).
Coach Taylor: ‘We will play with pride and passion’
Despite the challenges ahead, head coach Taylor says his squad will give the qualifiers their best shot.
He told Cook Island News:
“It is understood we are the unranked team and that it is a big challenge no matter who we play.
“I haven’t got to travel and see most of my players due to COVID, so I am relying on the reports I am getting back from people.
“But we have some guys playing high-quality football in Australia and New Zealand.
“We will play with pride and passion and never stop trying.”
The Cook Islands have had some familiar names as their national coaches, including New Zealand’s Shane Rufer (2011) and Kevin Fallon (2018-20).
Group A contains Solomon Islands (141st in FIFA world rankings), Tahiti (159), Vanuatu (163) and Cook Islands (unranked) who joined the group when Tonga (199) withdrew from a qualifying play-off between them.
All dates/times are New Zealand Time
Friday March 18 (3am): Cook Islands v Solomon Islands
Friday March 18 (6am): Tahii v Vanuatu
Monday March 21 (3am): Cook Islands v Tahiti
Monday March 21 (6am): Solomon Islands v Vanuatu
Friday March 25 (6am): Vanuatu v Cook Islands
Friday March 25 (6am): Solomon Islands v Tahiti
New Zealand are drawn in Group B with New Caledonia (ranked 153), Fiji (161) and Papua New Guinea (164).
Saturday March 19 (3am): Papua New Guinea v New Zealand (Qatar SC Stadium, Doha)
Saturday March 19 (6am): New Caledonia v Fiji
Tuesday March 22 (3am): Papua New Guinea v New Caledonia
Tuesday March 22 (6am): New Zealand v Fiji (Qatar SC Stadium, Doha)
Friday March 25 (6am): New Zealand v New Caledonia (Qatar SC Stadium, Doha)
Friday March 25 (6am): Fiji v Papua New Guinea
Monday March 28: Winner Group A v runners-up Group B; winner Group B v runners-up Group A
March 31: Final*
*It is anticipated that FIFA will agree to the final being played one day outside of their March international window.
June 14/15, 2022
The winner of the Oceania qualifying tournament will have a one-match showdown with whichever nation has finished fourth in the North & Central American and Caribbean qualifiers.
The match will be staged in Qatar on June 14 or 15 (NZT).
FIFA World Cup finals
Thirty-two nations will gather in Qatar to contest the World Cup finals.