Tenured CIFA president Lee Harmon, now onto his second decade in the top job, this week reflected on a number of footballing firsts that took place this year.
“One of our main achievements was Puaikura FC qualified for the second stage of the O-League championship (the premier men's club football competition in Oceania). In fact, they were the first team from the Cook Islands to qualify for the second stage,” Harmon said.
“We also organised our first ‘Kia Orana’ youth festival for boys aged 16 and under in April, and this included most of the Southern Group islands, and two teams from New Zealand.
“That’s one of the achievements that we’ve never done in the past and will now take place every two years, with the next being in 2019.
“And of course the under 16 girls went to the Oceania tournament in Samoa, which also included New Zealand, and progressed through to the semi-final stage.”
Harmon praised team coach Theresa Tatuava, technical director Jess Ibrom, team manager Merian Noovao and all the players who took part in the tournament in late August. He was also happy with the knockout cup finals that took place last week, as a strong crowd turned out to see Puaikura and Tupapa Maraerenga win the men and women’s respectively. The men’s Tupapa team, which won both the league and the pre-season, will also travel to American Samoa at the beginning of next year to participate in the preliminary O-League championship.
Much of this development stems from the grassroots football programmes that Harmon has instituted, and he is unequivocal when he says that they are the top in the country in that regard.
“If you want to get quality, you need to push for a good grassroots programme, and carry through until they are old enough to play for the national side, the U16 level, which at this stage is the youngest international level,” Harmon explained.
“It’s not easy, because we compete with other sporting codes, but I won’t hesitate to say this – we have the best grassroots programme in the country.”
Although the Cook Islands may be a small South Pacific nation, Harmon has become a recognisable face on the international football stage, as he was selected for the exclusive FIFA council last year.
Being among those 30-odd members has its benefits that the Cook Islands, especially the outer islands, are beginning to benefit from.
“There are big boys on that council, but they get the same amount of votes as me – one. And being on the FIFA council last year, that helped get what we want, such as materials, equipment for the clubs, a new programmes for clubs in the outer islands to benefit.
“There are some vehicles, equipment, uniforms, all paid throughout this funding, everything else that goes with football.” Harmon says 2018 will be one of the busiest years in memory for the country’s top tier footballing talent, beginning early January with the Tupapa Maraerenga side in American Samoa. “We are hosting the U19 men’s tournament here in late May-Early June, and we have a national women’s tour here from Tahiti at the end of June.
“In August, we go on to participate in the U16 preliminary tournament in Tonga.
“The men’s team is not going overseas, but I’m expecting a team to visit us, to play games so that we can start to prepare ourselves for 2019, when the stage one for the World Cup qualifiers kicks off around April.
“And then we will wrap up the year with the Women’s Nations Cup Championship in November in New Caledonia.”
On the domestic side, it will be just as busy, says Harmon.
In addition to the annual competition, the first event will be the senior national competition on Rarotonga in April.
The outer islands will be included, and there will be a new wrinkle for Rarotonga-based sides.
“If you are an Aitutakian, and you live in Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland (or Rarotonga). you can come play for the Aitutaki team. We’ve never done this before in football.”
Next year is year 21 as CIFA president for Harmon, and although he was coy about what goals he still had, he was adamant that he still had a lot left to offer the country.
“A few people have asked how I still retain the drive. I’m not 60 yet, I’m still young, so I still have a lot to offer with the football administration affairs of the game here in the Cook Islands.
“There is still a lot of unfinished work to be done.”