Tonga women’s football team rise against the odds to show a fighting spirit

Forced out of their own country by a natural disaster and the pandemic, the recent story of the Tongan women's national soccer team is an extraordinary one.

With sport on hold in Tonga, and the OFC Nations Cup, the first stage of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup on the horizon, the squad decamped to Australia so they could train and play their first international matches in three years.

But if the team thought their troubles were over once they touched down on Australian soil, then they were wrong.

It all started on January 15th, a date etched on the memories of every Tongan - it was the day the country was devastated by a volcanic eruption and tsunami.

The Head of Women's Football in Tonga, Adelaide Tu'ivailala, says the players in the national squad had a training session that afternoon followed by a practice match.

"The volcanic eruption and tsunami happened just as the referee blew the final whistle, and no-one knew what was really going on."

Most of the players were marooned, unable to get back to their home islands, and just a few days later COVID-19 struck and a lockdown was imposed.

Former Australian international player, Connie Selby, arrived in the country on the day the lockdown was declared to take up the role of national coach.

So as she could do nothing with the players in country, she used her connections to organise a camp in Australia, where Tonga would play friendly games against the visiting Philippines team under former Matildas coach, Alan Stajcic.

"We've coached together and we've coached against each other. And he reached out and said, hey, do you guys want to come and play some games, because we were looking at coming to Australia for a camp," said Selby.

Getting to Australia was hard, flights were cancelled, and one of the games against the Philippines was called off. When the squad finally did make it to Sydney, it was on the very day of their first match against the Asian team.

"The bus was waiting for us, but it couldn't get in to pick us up, the boom gate wouldn't open. Finally, the boom gate opened after about 20 minutes. And then we put everything on the bus because we didn't have much time, then we went to go out of the gate and it wouldn't open!"

By the time the team reached the headquarters of Football New South Wales, they barely had any time to eat, and just 15 minutes to warm up before taking to the field. So the result was rather predictable.

"Yeah, we lost 16 nil. But I'll tell you what the girls never ever gave up. They didn't drop their heads. And I was just so proud of them because the girls just gave their best," said coach Selby.

"It's not right for the girls to travel and then arrive and play same day, but because of the opportunity for us to play with the Philippine team, that's why we went ahead," said Adelaide Tu'ivailala.

And before the next game, the players received an unexpected boost in the form of a royal visit.

"We were so grateful to Her Royal Highness Princess Angelika Lātūfuipeka Tuku'aho, the Tongan High Commissioner to Australia, she's also the royal patron of Tonga football. The day we arrived, we received a call from her secretary to advise that they will be here in Sydney at the weekend, so she would like to come and visit us. So we were all excited, so grateful for her kindness, and she bestowed the team with the name Mataliki," said Ms Tu'ivailala.

The royal visit seemed to do the trick, as the next game against the Philippines was a very different affair.

"We made three critical errors, which cost us three goals, but we lost five nil. So to come from 16 down to five, and you could really say two, I was just absolutely so proud of them. And so was everybody because it was just a huge, huge improvement," said Connie Selby.

The focus now is on winning the OFC Nations Cup in July, a result that would send Tonga into the final round of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup on the doorstep of the Pacific in Australia and New Zealand.

"That's what the girls want more than anything else. I think they want it because it will lift the game in Tonga...a lot of the younger players will go wow, look what our senior girls did. We want to be like them!"