The Women’s World Cup being co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia is showcasing the two countries to the world.
With games played in excellent stadiums with the world’s best players on show, there are clear spin-offs to the co-hosts, both financially and in the footballing sense.
But with no Oceania team having managed to qualify, it’s hard to see what benefits there could be for the Pacific in the wider sense.
The dream of Pacific interest in the Cup was extinguished earlier in the year when Papua New Guinea’s strength in the region proved inadequate when competing globally as they were exposed by Panama in the Intercontinental playoffs.
The Oceania Football Confederation comprises 11 member states, of which New Zealand is but one and its scope stretches from PNG to Tahiti.
Tournament games are being shown on various media sources throughout the Pacific nations and territories giving the sport crucial exposure.
Is that enough, however? Can the tournament have any tangible benefits in a region that is the smallest of the six FIFA confederations?
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has done his bit by promising to visit all 11 OFC member states during the extravaganza.
The easy part was travelling to New Zealand where the event opened and where he attended the OFC annual congress held in conjunction with the Cup. Infantino stopped off in his private jet in Tahiti on his way to New Zealand.
He spent several days in the Cook Islands, both Samoa and Tonga, over several days. And he followed that by travelling to Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. In Port Vila an exhibition game was played between FIFA and Vanuatu legends as Infantino inaugurated two new football fields.
The only question mark is over whether he will be able to make it to New Caledonia.
Visit brought hope to the Cooks’ football family
Perhaps a cynical eye would deride these visits as tokenisitic. But the Cook Islands Football Association thinks otherwise. Its general secretary Allen Parker has seen the benefits of having a FIFA President visit the Cook Islands for the first time.
“[Infantino’s] visit has brought hope to the football family, especially boys and girls, that football can make their lives happier, their dreams can be realised when sport facilities, academies, infrastructure, football development programmes and competitions are given to them.
“They will have the opportunity to play international games and represent their country, play for professional clubs and make their family proud and happier,” an ebullient Parker told RNZ Pacific.
“In addition, since the FIFA Women’s World Cup is taking place in our region, young female footballers and players here in the Cook Islands can watch these games on TV, which motivates them to train hard, play football, and makes them start thinking of what they can do now to become elite players like what they see on TV.”
Parker further told RNZ Pacific there were clear economic benefits from the visit to the islands.
Back in New Zealand, a senior FIFA official was telling participants at an OFC workshop in Wellington that not only can football in Oceania become more competitive, but a national team from the Pacific can win an age group world cup.
That was, in April Heinrich’s own words, “a big statement”, but the FIFA high performance specialist was convinced of the potential within the Pacific.
“I have already seen the progress of many smaller countries in women’s football around the world. We are developing people. This takes time. Your youth national teams are your pipeline…your rehearsal,” she said.
Work to be done
Nevertheless, Mathew Nash, who writes the Oceania focused Two Halves blog, notes a lot more work needs to be done to keep improving the game.
He said that while the record crowds, unprecedented global interest and the performances of Pacific-heritage players like Australia’s Mary Fowler and Football Fern Malia Steinmetz are all positives, “it is clearly not a magic wand”.
“Systemic issues and barriers to the women’s game remain. Just look at the experience of our OFC champions Papua New Guinea. Their attempt to qualify was marred by an incredibly disjointed and problematic build-up,” Nash told RNZ Pacific.
“Hopefully, the World Cup can continue to shift perceptions across federations, associations and genders when it comes to women’s football in the Pacific and the world. Only then, can girls from Port Moresby, Honiara, Apia and beyond reap the benefits in the next 10 to 20 years.
FIFA boss in the Pacific
In Samoa, Infantino was shown the Apia Park project where the Football Federation of Samoa is converting unused land and laying new football pitches.
In American Samoa, he discussed ways in which FIFA can help the territory improve its facilities and develop football.
While visiting Tonga, Infantino was shown plans for a new $US8 million stadium project. The plan also includes proposals to build football academies on Tongatapu and the outer islands.
He opened a football facility in Vanuatu in honour of the man regarded as the world’s greatest-ever footballer, the King Pelé Football Field in Port Vila.
During his visit to Fiji, Infantino opened new football facilities and inaugurated a new fitness centre, named after Pelé, and a futsal pitch built with the support of the FIFA Forward project.
There are other developments around the region already in motion. Infantino didn’t announce any new projects during his stop-offs but he stressed that FIFA is committed to every footballing nation in the world, from Panama to Tahiti, not just the superpowers. These are just one part of various ambitious plans to improve the standards and opportunities in a region where football is on the rise but a lot of work remains to be done if the world rankings of its component nations rise and teams perform better on the world stage.