Kiribati flagAs a membership application to join FIFA, Kiribati’s performance at this month’s Pacific Games must rank a dismal failure.

The Pacific islands have been trying to join FIFA for some time and a performance in New Caledonia that included not one but two 17-1 defeats seems unlikely to help a much-delayed application that finally appeared to be showing signs of succeeding.

Back in 2007, FIFA said that Kiribati was “in the formal process of admission but we expect them to withdraw their request in the coming months.” Ioteba Redfern, the president of the Kiribati Islands Football Association (KIFA), quickly denied any volte face but when Kiribati failed to take part in the 2007 Pacific Games football tournament, the membership bid trailed off.  There was little sign of any subsequent progress until, at the behest of former Football Association chairman Geoff Thompson, FIFA set up a small nations working group to look into the cases of potential members. The working group categorised potential members into three groups from independent states to politically sensitive applicants.

As an independent state recognised by the United Nations, Kiribati was – according to the group – a “priority” and FIFA says that the KIFA application is the only one received from this most eligible group of just eight potential members.  At a group meeting on October 27 2010, Kiribati’s application was discussed but some documents were missing. Thompson suggested requesting the missing documents and asking a representative of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) to visit Kiribati. “Otherwise,” says the notes, “FIFA would decide on the application without full knowledge of the situation.”

Prior to this meeting, Thompson and another FIFA official Urs Kluser carried out visits to three other potential members, taking in trips to Jersey, the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten and another tiny Pacific island chain in Tuvalu.  Kiribati was snubbed and when first Kluser then Thompson left FIFA, an application that could provide U$D 250,000 in funding a year for the disparate island group seemed in danger.  So Ioteba Redfern jetted into Switzerland in June this year to advance Kiribati’s case. His lobbying proved successful and FIFA plans a trip to Kiribati in conjunction with the OFC later this month (September). Then, says the world body, the “matter will be then dealt with by the Associations Committee in October 2011.”

With the agenda set, the 2011 Pacific Games were a chance for FIFA’s potentially newest member to show what could be achieved on the pitch.  The I-Kiribati – as the islanders are known – first entered the Pacific Games in 1979, losing 13-0 to Papua New Guinea and 24-0 to Fiji. Kiribati’s only other appearance in a tournament with a five decade history was 2003, when losses included a 12-0 defeat to Fiji and an 18-0 savaging by Vanuatu.

With the FIFA application finally moving forward, New Caledonia 2011 was a new dawn and an opening 9-0 defeat to Fiji was an improvement. The Cook Islands edged past the I-Kiribati 3-0 and in their next match, Karotu Bakaae even scored; the problem was the 17 goals that went past Kiribati’s keeper Tiion Miika.  Miika was dropped. Tongalua Akori took over in goal for the final group game against Tahiti and another new face drafted into the starting XI, Erene, Bakineti, even scored but Akori also let in 17 goals.

Having started so promisingly, Kiribati fell apart and their performance provided a stark and embarrassing contrast to the effort by neighbours Tuvalu. Although beaten 5-1 by Vanuatu, 6-1 by the Solomon Islands and 8-0 by the hosts, Tuvalu took points off two full FIFA members, thrashing American Samoa 4-0 and drawing 1-1 with Guam.  Perhaps Kiribati’s performance in New Caledonia will make FIFA realise the KIFA really need some help?  Or maybe the woeful showing will convince FIFA that its search for a 209th member might be better focused on Kiribati’s more adept neighbours Tuvalu, leaving the I-Kiribati stuck on the touchlines for even longer?

By Steve Menary

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona