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World Cup fever hits Vanuatu

World Cup fever hits Vanuatu. Amy Eastwood

I have spent the past week watching the build up to the World Cup from the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. With a population of roughly 250,000, Vanuatu’s men’s team is ranked 190th in the world. Vanuatu did not qualify for this World Cup. In fact, they have not qualified for any other World Cup.

This nation has a passion for football. Pitches can be found wherever there is a flat enough patch of land. In some cases this is a disused World War Two airstrip, or a grassy patch outside a school, or the foundations of an unfinished building. There are few regulation sets of goalposts here. Instead, these are constructed from bits of wood that are straight enough to serve the purpose of two posts and a crossbar.

A disused airstrip converted into a football pitch. Amy Eastwood

The playing kits are a mishmash of shirts and shorts with the occasional Barcelona, Chelsea, or other European superpower shirt mixed in. Often these kits are not complete with football boots, however.

A lack of footwear does not inhibit high skill levels. Amy Eastwood

Players are often barefoot without these basics that are usually a prerequisite for participation in many matches in westernised countries. So in a nation that clearly loves football, what do the inhabitants do during a World Cup that their country is not playing in? Well, apparently they pick a country that did qualify and devote their passion to this team. The Ni-Vanuatu proudly display their new allegiances. In villages and homes, flags of the traditional footballing powerhouses (European nations along with Brazil and Argentina) fly resplendently.

It is a strange sight to see an England flag flapping lazily in the tropical breeze. France and England are popular choices given the island’s history while Brazil is another favourite for footballing reasons.

An England flag displayed near Mele village. Amy Eastwood

The majority of the (what seems like hundreds of) buses on Efate island are likewise adorned with flags, and in some cases pictures, of the driver’s chosen team. Locals tell me that this is not the norm on the island and the phenomena has only sprung up ahead of the World Cup.

That such a tiny island nation, isolated in the vast Pacific Ocean, has embraced the World Cup in such a way would surely warm the cockles of the hearts of Sepp Blatter and everyone else at FIFA.

A local bus displaying the driver’s favoured team. Amy Eastwood

And yet this passion for the World Cup and football feels metaphorically further away from FIFA’s branded, commercialised (allegedly corrupt) tournament than the actual distance of Vanuatu from FIFA’s base in Switzerland. Here, the passion and joy that is shown reveals the pureness and simplicity that football and sport can offer. Here, football is devoid of FIFA’s political agenda and machinations and is perhaps better for it. Here, there is a glimpse of sport as it should be.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Allan Lees


    " as it should be..."

    A game, not a business. The term "professional sport" remains an oxymoron.

    1. Russell Walton


      In reply to Allan Lees

      Yes, indeed, sport is participatory, anything else is mass entertainment, a day at the arena.

  2. Terry Reynolds

    Financial and political strategist

    I think they should cheer, that they failed to qualify. Mob football with a round ball has been going on for thousands of years and is great fun, but it seems everytime some soccer enthusiast sees people kicking a round ball around, they say it is soccer. People having been kicking and throwing round balls around in "mob football" games for thousands of years in South America, Australia, China and the Greece amongst other places except in Australia it was more akin to Australian football we play now.

    So called "Soccer Mums" send their kids between 6 and 10 to so-called soccer so they too can run around awkwardly kicking a round ball around in groups until the kids lose interest, usually around ten and choose their preferred sport amongst a wide range.

    Did the author see anyone playing rugby or kicking an elongated ball in Vanuatu too?

    1. Keith Parry

      Lecturer in Sport Management at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      The football on view was typically bounded by some rules and regulations which, while less formal than those imposed by governing bodies, would distinguish it from versions of mob or folk football. Versions of mob football still exist in the UK too - the annual Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football is still a popular event for many.

      Rugby League and Union, along with cricket were all seen being played in Vanuatu. Through a contact with the VRL I know that league in particular is growing there. While I didnt see it being played there was at least one set of AFL posts visible also.

  3. Isha Deshmukh

    logged in via email

    Seeing how the population of this country is only 250,000, its not very surprising that their team did not qualify this year. However in saying that, I am not claiming that the Vanuatu Football team is of any less calibre. Rather, its most likely the lower proportion of elite players available due to its limited population.

    1. Keith Parry

      Lecturer in Sport Management at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Isha Deshmukh

      The Trinidad and Tobago team qualified for the 2006 World Cup, their population is just over a million. Iceland (population around 320,000) were beaten by Croatia in a play-off for this World Cup. Qualification is possible with a small population but a good development structure is vital - Vanuatu has shown promising signs at youth levels by all accounts so there is hope!

    2. Isha Deshmukh

      logged in via email

      In reply to Keith Parry

      Well said Keith. I guess it comes down to the country and how they form a winning team! Hoping for Vanuatu to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

  4. Graham C Edwards


    Oh well done Keith, this piece really deserves a wider audience, very Guardianesque.

  5. Alistair McCulloch

    logged in via email

    I generally try to avoid getting involved in any of the hype generated to supporting the marketing of these mega events as it always seems to be the rich who benefit and the poor on whom the costs fall. I seem to remember they just used to use the stadia that already existed which has always seemed like a good idea.

    In terms of the soccer itself.

    a) As a Scot, If England is playing, I support whoever's playing England. Yesterday I was an honorary Italian for a couple of hours.

    b) Alternatively, Brazil for their beautiful game.

    c) Failing all else, the underdog.