Solomon Islands - September 11, 2021 19:45Solomon Islands back again for another danceReport by Steve HarrisCover photo: Kurukuru celebrating a goal against Malta in the recent Futsal Week Summer Cup in Porec (Courtesy: Futsal Week)

Almost Missed the Boat

Prior to the World Cup debut of the Solomon Islands at the 2008 Brazil edition, how many people were even aware of this small archipelago in the South Pacific? And yet, the festive colors donned by the Kurukuru have become a familiar sight at the world championship now that they have appeared in three consecutive competitions thus far. The team decisively won the hearts of spectators the world over when a video featuring Eliot Ragomo went viral. At the press conference following the team’s 3-7 loss to Argentina, the emotional captain fights back tears and passionately explains that the very presence of the team at such a prestigious event is a dream come true for all 600,000+ citizens back home.
And just slightly over a year after Lithuania was awarded the 2020 hosting rights, which country was first to claim their ticket to The Big Show? The Solomon Islands, of course – but they almost missed the boat this time. Down 3-4 against New Zealand in the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Futsal Nations Cup, an equalizer 20 seconds from the buzzer led to extra time, a goal from each team, and, in the end, a victory by the Kurukuru in penalties. Though their 2008 World Cup debut seemed little more than a gift resulting from Australia’s departure from the OFC (to the AFC), the competition in Oceania has since intensified to the point that the OFC final is just about as demanding as the group stage of the World Cup.

The Kurukuru were minutes away from being eliminated by New Zealand in the OFC final. The victory was followed by tears of joy. (Photo credit: Vinicius Leite)

Seamless Transition to a New Coach

“The people of the Solomon Islands refer to themselves as the Brazilians of the South Pacific – not just for their talent but also because of their passion,” says current head coach Vinicius Leite in fluent English that reveals traces of an Australian accent. The Belo Horizonte native played professionally in Brazil till the age of 25, but found a home in Wollongbar, Australia, where he runs the Just Futsal academy. Leite was originally brought on board by compatriot Juliano Schmeling in 2015, as the team prepared for their campaign at the Colombia World Cup. Schmeling actually resided for three years in Honiara, the capitol of the nation, and noticed a remarkable resemblance to home: “There is tremendous passion for the sport, with kids playing everywhere – some with shoes on, some with them off. I never had any problem with the players or community. I felt as if I had been living in Brazil!”

After moving into Schmeling’s post as Kurukuru head coach, Leite did not have the luxury of moving to Honiara, so he designed a training plan he rolled out in blocks of two weeks at a time. One key practice he introduced to the team was a strength and conditioning program with physical trainer Alex Argolo before each court session. He recalls basking in the great respect he received upon arrival, but also knew that the demanding public would accept nothing less than qualification for Lithuania. “My son had just been born but during those first weeks I spent more time with the team than him. I just considered that to be the kind of sacrifice I would have to make for success. It was tremendous pressure to be under – like being behind 2-4 to New Zealand with three minutes to go – but if you can’t handle pressure, you can’t handle success.”

Call him Vin, Vinnie or Vinicius – or just Oceania champion. (Photo credit Vinicius Leite)

Mission 2021: Survival Beyond the Group Stage

The staying power of the Kurukuru “class of 2008” (the first Solomon Islands national team to play in a World Cup) has been astonishing. One of the scorers in the OFC victory over New Zealand was James Egata, who was to have played in his fourth World Cup this September, but was held back by visa issues. “I was first called up when I was 12 years old, so I represented the Solomon Islands from primary school through high school. At the time of the 2008 World Cup, I was 18.” Current teammates Eliot Ragomo and Samuel Osifelo were 18 and 17, respectively. The team has come a long way in the ensuing years, so Leite is optimistic but realistic. “We’re not in the World Cup to win it. Our ambition is to get out of the group stage.”
And there are tangible milestones that mark the team’s progress during this marathon journey: a 2-31 loss to Russia in 2008, a 0-16 loss to Russia in 2012, a 3-7 loss to tournament champion Argentina in 2016. Factor in their 4-3 victory over Guatemala in 2012, and perhaps survival to the round of 16 is within sight this time. As this has all been accomplished without proper infrastructure or financial incentives, Schmeling sees an even brighter future due to the fledging national league. SIPA Futsal League champion Kooline also took the gold medal at the inaugural edition of the OFC Futsal Champions League, so the Kurukuru are no longer the only game in town.

Captain Eliot Ragomo triumphantly hoists high the OFC trophy. (Photo credit: Vinicius Leite)

Completion of the House of Kurukuru

While Leite shares the Solomon Islanders’ expectations for an even better showing at the upcoming World Cup, he is just as committed to the long-term development of the team. He argues that a key piece of infrastructure has been missing: a full-spec stadium. “They have always played a short game because of the lack of space. That means playing through or around a defense but never over it. That’s why I have tried to give their game depth.” And in fact, work has commenced on the 2023 Pacific Games Multi-Purpose Futsal Stadium at Solomon Islands National University (SINU) Panatina campus sports ground in East Honiara. The completion of the long-awaited home arena of the Kurukuru is less than two years away.
Leite’s mission goes beyond the Lithuania campaign. “We can’t allow to happen in Honiara what happened in Australia. Australia failed to qualify for the World Cup because of the lack of support and funding by the federation (Football Australia), which is suffocating the sport in spite of the growing number of players. The Pacific Games will be hosted by the Solomon Islands in 2023, so there will be a stadium as large as the 4,000-5,000-seat facilities in places such as Fiji and New Caledonia. After the World Cup, we will have the stadium to look forward to, so we next need to integrate in the U-17 players to give them a future and put pressure on the older players. My goal for the older players is to help them find a place as professionals in other countries. It’s a way out of poverty that can give their families a better life. If I can do that for as many players as possible, I will be the happiest coach in the world.”

Montage of scenes related to the work started on the 2023 Pacific Games Multi-Purpose Futsal Stadium (Photo credit: Solomon Islands Football Federation)

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