Oceania’s pinnacle event becomes a showcase for true football passion

By Coen Lammers

Football fans are currently enjoying a smorgasbord of action from Euro 2024 and the Copa America, but in the outer reaches of the football map, in the tiny island nation of Vanuatu, Oceania is serving up its own wonderful and unique football flavours.

On Sunday, Vanuatu and New Zealand will square off for the Oceania Football Confederation Nations Cup, the pinnacle event in this part of the world and the stadium will heave with excitement.

The stadiums in Germany have been bouncing with fans from all over Europe, but few of those crowds will match the near-fanatical masses packing into the Freshwater Stadium in Port Vila the past two weeks.

OFC Nations Cup matches, especially those involving the host team, have been the hottest tickets in town, and the 7,000 tickets sell out within a couple of hours. That figure represents the official capacity, but with thousands of youngsters under 12 getting free entry, there is barely a spare blade of grass left.

The locals know that need to get there early if you want one of the 1,500 seats in the covered stands, and are usually filled two or three hours before kick-off, bringing their own lunches and leaving behind a mountain of peanut shells.

Normal rules, of course, do not apply to local VIPs who want to bask in the glory of Vanuatu’s pinnacle event.

With every seat already filled, the unannounced late arrival of Ministers with their entourage has been causing some major juggling acts and diplomacy for the local organisers, trying to keep the officials and the paying punters happy.

An estimated 10,000 packed VFF Freshwater Stadium for Vanuatu’s dramatic semi-final win over Fiji, which is a quarter of the population of Port Vila, with thousands more watching from rooftops, car trunks, woodpiles and any other form of elevation.

Fans find every possible vantage point to watch their football in Port Vila. Photo credit: OFC Media / Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

To say Vanuatu is football-mad would be an understatement, and the nation has been proud and grateful to host their first-ever OFC Nations Cup to commemorate the 90-year anniversary of the VFF.

The insolvency of Air Vanuatu threw a late spanner in the works and forced part of the tournament to be moved to Fiji, but would not stop the enthusiastic local organising committee from pulling out all stops to make their guests feel welcome.

Vanuatu and its football federation have significant economic and logistical challenges, that would make football administrators in other countries curl up in the foetal position, but the tournament has so far been gone off without any major glitches.

Some teams raised concerns about the quality of the training pitches, which highlights one of the major challenges Vanuatu football faces for their own development.

Aside from the FIFA-funded Freshwater Stadium, other venues are run by the local government and the pitches are not always their top priority, while the broadleaved island grass makes it difficult to create a smooth surface.

The ground staff at Freshwater tried to grow a pitch with thinner grass like players are used to in New Zealand, only to see the local grass take over in a matter of weeks.

Vanuatu are looking to make history with a win against the All Whites on Sunday. Photo credit: OFC Media / Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

The best training pitch on the main island of Efate turned out to be at the Montmarte School, far in the hills above Port Vila, surrounded by dense tropical bush which can only be reached after some serious off-roading.

The All Whites used Montmarte as their training base, where the support staff got a bit of a fright in their first session, retrieving wayward balls from the bushes and being confronted by huge spiders, allegedly the size of small dogs.

As a result, some of the balls were left behind in the bush for the local school kids to retrieve, and the shooting drills were moved to the other goal.

As coach Darren Bazeley had predicted, the OFC Nations Cup was an eye-opener for some of the New Zealand professionals, cramped into mini-buses, playing on unfamiliar surfaces, against unfamiliar teams and having to get changed in a wooden shed outside the main stadium for the semi-final, because the two main dressing rooms were used for the second semi-final.

“This is back to basics. Some of these guys haven’t seen a shed like this since they played in the under-14s,” joked one of the Kiwi support staff.

To their credit, the young All Whites squad and their coaches took their new surroundings in their stride without complaints and focused on getting the job done.

Many of the squad had experienced football in the islands during previous U-17 and U-20 campaigns and went out of their way to engage with the locals, shake hands and pose for selfies wherever they travelled.

Instead of being intimidated, the All Whites seemed to feed off the energy of the raucous crowd, who were only a couple of metres from the playing surface, embracing Vanuatu and its football passion.

New Zealand’s Tim Payne playing before a raucous crowd in Port Vila. Photo credit: OFC Media / Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

The script for the tournament could not have been better, with the local heroes making their first-ever final against the overwhelming favourites from New Zealand.

Whatever the result on Sunday, the final will be the biggest day in the annals of Vanuatu football and possibly the most famous day in the history of the friendly island nation.

READ MORE: Vanuatu make history to reach Sunday’s OFC Men’s Nations Cup final >>>>


Games to be played on Sunday June 30, 2024

Play-off for third place

Tahiti v Fiji
VFF Freshwater Stadium, Port Vila, Vanuatu, 12pm (NZT)


New Zealand v Vanuatu
VFF Freshwater Stadium, Port Vila, Vanuatu, 4pm (NZT)

This story was first published on June 30, 2024

Coen Lammers

Coen Lammers is a long-time football enthusiast and writer. Based in Canterbury, he’s followed and reported on football around the world.

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