The Polynesian islanders of Tonga have never before featured at the bottom of the FIFA world rankings, though they have more than once had a bearing on matters relating to the worst in the world.
Back in the Oceania zone qualifying rounds for the 2002 World Cup, Tonga were pitched into an opening group with the regional might of Australia, among a few other Pacific island nations. Tonga suffered the ignominy of a world record defeat for an international match, going down 22-0 to the rampant Socceroos.
Incredibly, for a team that suffered such a loss, they had in fact got off to a great start in that group, winning against Samoa a couple of days before the heavy loss. They would also win the match directly after it too – a thumping 5-0 win over American Samoa, who were at the time ranked as worst in the world. And it was the American Samoans that Tonga remained grateful too, as it was they who erased Tonga’s 22-0 loss from the record books, suffering an even worse loss to the Australians, contriving to lose 31-0.
Fast forward eleven years and Tonga once again crossed paths with the American Samoans, who were once again stranded as the worst national team in the world. On that occasion it was the lower ranked Samoans, with their Hollywood tale of redemption and resurrection, who won their first ever match to climb from the bottom of the rankings. Whenever Tonga have some involvement in worst in the world issues, it seems, American Samoa are never far away.
With that in mind, it will surprise nobody to learn that when Tonga hosted the first round group of Oceania World Cup qualifying for Russia 2018 earlier this year, that American Samoa were again standing in their way, along with Samoa and the Cook Islands. In that respect, there was a striking similarity to the same stage four years previously, when amid American Samoa’s fairytale, Tonga had at least managed a win (over the Cook Islands) and a draw (against group winners Samoa) to sit alongside that defeat. They finished second in the group behind Samoa, and remained sufficiently clear of the bottom of the world rankings.
The same four teams competed in the opening group again this year, but for Tonga it was a tale of woe. Playing in front of a home crowd in Nuku’alofa, Tonga never seemed to get over an opening loss to the Cook Islands, losing 3-0 in a game they may have expected to win. They took the lead against American Samoa in their next match, only to lose 2-1, before being soundly beaten by Samoa. Three games, three defeats and only one goal scored.
Reports suggest that they were a tad unfortunate not to have troubled the score sheet a bit more often, though they appeared off the pace at times. And now that we have reached four years since the previous World Cup matches, those precious rankings points gained that year have now gone. Tonga’s measly points total has frittered away to nothing, leaving them joining our other worst in the world teams in rock bottom.
Digging a little deeper into the Tongan squad, some reasons for their struggles present themselves. Not only were Tonga the only team in the Oceania group to have no overseas-based players (other islands nations often have a handful playing in New Zealand or on occasion, Australia) but Tonga are clearly struggling for squad depth. In the group in Nuku’alofa they fielded both the oldest player (Kilifi Uele at 40 years-old) and the youngest player (Anthony Likiliki at just 15).
Their current malaise is a far cry from their first forays into Pacific island football, winning the inaugural Polynesian Cup in 1993. But, with FIFA funding assistance, they have now created international standard pitches and a national academy – the “House of Football” – though football lags far behind the all-pervasive rugby obsession in Tonga.
It is to be hoped that they can unearth some talent to aid their progression, languishing as they are now as one of six teams stranded at the foot of the world rankings. Looking forward, the next Pacific Games will be stages in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, with a football tournament as a part of the games, but with that not taking place until 2019, the same year that will see the opening group of 2022 World Cup qualifying in Oceania, short-term prospects are perilously slim.