Oceania is diverse – many cultures, languages and traditions are shaped by the environment of the 14 members and associate members of the Oceania Football Confederation. Football is a passion throughout the region, even if it is not as successful as the American and European countries are.
Vanuatu is one of the most football-loving nations in Oceania; not unlike the rest of its Melanesian brothers and even other countries in the South Pacific, Vanuatu has football as a national sport. For Oceania football fans, it is nothing new that there is only one fully professional football club on the continent – the Wellington Phoenix, which plays in the Australian Football League, the Hyundai A-League. This says a lot about the reality of football in the region, as many of the players can not make a living from football, they have to divide their duties between playing and working to feed their families. This is a reality common to all countries in the region, but Vanuatu is currently the most affected.
Vanuatu has produced many important players for football in Oceania over the past decades – the country has even reached the amazing milestone of qualifying for the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea. Unfortunately, even the country’s most prominent teams are unable to provide their players with full financial support – Galaxy is probably the only example of a true semi-professional club in the country.
Vanuatu, with a population of around 300.000, will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its independence next 30th July – a very young nation compared to what seems to be common on other continents around the world. Vanuatu, a developing country, does not have as many job opportunities as countries like New Zealand and Australia – so it is quite normal for Ni-Vanuatu citizens to move overseas to apply for jobs.
So-called seasonal working is a program that allows Pacific Islanders to travel to New Zealand or Australia to work in agriculture. It is not unusual for people to apply for other types of jobs in these countries as well. Due to the general financial situation in the country, a reasonable number of Ni-Vanuatu citizens move to larger countries to look for better pay. As the footballers are part of society in general, they are also affected by this harsh scenario.
Very important players from Vanuatu are currently working abroad as part of the seasonal working programme; names such as Chikau Mansale and Zica Manuhi – both former players of the Vanuatu National Team – had to leave their home country to get a better financial background in larger countries. It is rare for players from these countries to be able to continue to divide their duties between playing and working in another country, forcing them to interrupt their football careers for long periods.
Junior Felix, a talented defender who has played in Tafea for most of his career, is one such example: “I recently worked in Australia, in fact I should be there now. The COVID-19 pandemic does not allow me to return,” Felix explained, “There are lots of players that after playing football they do not have enough to live with, because there are not enough working posts for everyone in here,” added the 23-year-old.
“Currently I earn nothing from football – as most of the footballers here in Vanuatu. Sometimes when we win an important match they pay us a prize, only few football clubs can afford to pay something reasonable to its players. Many of the players from here leave to Australia or New Zealand for apple picking,” explained Felix. ‘Apple picking’ as Felix mentions – the work on farms to which most Pacific Islanders go to Australia or New Zealand – is another difficult subject for these seasonal jobs. The pejorative nomenclature of ‘fruit pickers’ has been used to degrade Pacific Islanders when they travel to unknown places with their hearts set on a better future, another sad example that surrounds the careers of many of the country’s amateur footballers.
“I do not know what to expect from football,” says a distressed Felix, “I wish I could play in New Zealand as Brian Kaltak, captain of the Vanuatu national team. I love football – it is my favourite sport – but I can live without it, not without a real job,” stated the defender. Brian Kaltak mentioned is a role model in Vanautu and the South Pacific, having emerged from the youth system of Erakor Golden Star and become a key player for Auckland City in New Zealand that, although not a fully professional club, can afford to pay a decent wage to keep its players focused solely on the sport.
Players who manage to get work in Vanuatu, such as Tafea’s Bob Jeffery and Kevin Shem, usually lose many games during the season because they can not get working leaves for many of their club matches – something that is often observed in the league match sheets, clubs change a lot their starting elevens due the inegibility of players. There are also many cases of players who have decided to move permanently from Vanuatu to larger countries and end their football careers.
The situation in Vanuatu and in many other countries in the region does not seem to be changing so quickly; the financial background of many clubs still depends on little local business, which can at best only contribute to offering paid jobs to players under sponsorship arrangements. As mentioned earlier, there are few examples of players who can only live from football in Vanuatu – something that can be seen on a similar scale on other Pacific islands.
There is still a long way to go for the development of the sport in the country; the best partner in this process is the national Football Federation, who should support the players as much as possible and are always keen to create a healthy environment for potential investors to enhance the local level of the sport and provide a real life-changing opportunity for local talent – that we know that Vanuatu has a lot of.