Football in the South Atlantic
FOOTBALL in England is changing: ticket prices are rising, and billionaire club owners are spending obscenely large sums of cash on footballers. However, on a series of remote islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, football continues to do what it does best: bring communities together.
Saint Helena is best known as Napoleon Bonaparte’s island of exile – the great French general died there in 1821.
British-owned Saint Helena has a population of just 4,000, and this number decreases as more young islanders opt to study and work in the UK, unsurprisingly as St Helena’s average annual salary is just £5,500.
However, Saint Helena has a football league and a football association.
The league begins in May and finishes midway through winter to allow the cricket season to start. Saint Helena’s location means its winter runs through the UK’s summer.
The league is an exciting affair for the closeknit island community, and large crowds are regularly in attendance. The league comprises 12 teams with sides like Rovers, Harts and Wirebirds doing battle.
Saint Helena have aspirations in international football. The island’s FA attempted to send a team to the 2011 Island Games in the Isle of Wight, an Olympic-themed competition for small islands throughout the world.
The aim was to send a squad of around 17 players – five from the island and the rest from the UK with Saint Helenian roots. Unfortunately, financial difficulties meant nothing materialised.
The Saint Helena FA have also contacted FIFA. With Gibraltar, another British overseas territory, a member of UEFA, there is hope that St Helena may be able to join the global governing body.
This may prove slightly more difficult for Tristan da Cunha.
A volcanic island some 1,000 miles away from Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, named after the explorer, has a population of just 300.
Football is an integral part of island life and a main supporter is Leon Glass, who founded Tristan’s only football club, Tristan da Cunha FC.
“The club was founded in 2002 as the introduction of TV increased the interest in football,” he says. “We play as soon as we get visiting opponents, but there have been none in the last few years.
“I don’t think it would be possible to start another team here as there are few opponents
to play – interest in joining the team has dropped.”
Tristan da Cunha FC are the most remote football club in the world. And although they have played matches before, against Navy ships, their location is obviously an enormous disadvantage.
Glass has considered the possibility of sending a team to the Island Games.
“We have discussed it, but the logistics and funding makes it very difficult for us to travel,” he said.
“We would love to take the club abroad should we obtain funding and the right opportunity arrives.”
The lack of matches has taken its toll on the club, who now field a five-a-side team. Despite the team’s grandiose “remotest in the world” title, they continue to struggle onwards, a team without an opposition.
However, on an island more than a thousand miles away, the situation couldn’t be more different.
Ascension Island has about 800 inhabitants, the majority of whom are originally Saint Helenian, British or American.
Like Tristan da Cunha and Saint Helena, Ascension Island is owned by Britain. Football is very popular on the island and, like Saint Helena, they boast their own league.
However, the only football pitch on the island is situated beside the beach, and tortoises can regularly be seen resting on the playing surface.
The field has barely any grass and there are plans to build a new one at some point, as local football journalist Catherine Leo explains: “A new pitch will be built but there is lots of history steeped in the current Long Beach football field that some people won’t want to let go of.
“But I believe when a new one is built it will probably offer a better facility in that it can be used for other sport and will most likely be close to the island school so they, too, can make use of it.”
Due to the fact that there are no permanent residents on the island – the inhabitants are all on work permits – placing a team in the Island Games is all but impossible. The league, however, is in full swing.
The Ascension Island Football League features six teams, including Inbetweeners, Two Boats United and the reigning champions, VC Milan. It’s the most popular sport on the island and the local newspaper, The Islander, includes match reports and analysis, while Saint Helena’s Sentinel often dedicates a page to the Ascension League.
The Ascension Island’s population may be meagre, but driven by determination and a love for the ‘Beautiful Game’, their teams continue to arrive at the Long Beach football pitch every Saturday, to find it invaded by tortoises or flooded, but carry on nevertheless.
Departing Ascension Island, and heading south, you’ll find the Falkland Islands, the location of the infamous war between Britain and Argentina.
The Falkland Islands have something no other island in the South Atlantic Ocean can boast – a national football team. But, despite this, they do not currently have a league.
Football on the islands has been dwindling over the last 10 years. The Falkland Islands Football League – the governing body for football on the islands – gave up on the league in 2011 when there were just four teams competing. A lack of interest is one problem with cricket the more popular sport. But, despite not having a league, the Falklands continue to compete in the Island Games, facing the likes of FIFA members Bermuda and UEFA members Gibraltar, as well as the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Greenland.
Their record in the tournament is fairly dire, but they did manage to clinch a bronze medal in the 2013 event, held in the British territory of Bermuda.
Sadly, playing football at FIFA level is impossible for the Falklanders, as their Football League chairman Michael Betts says: “Due to the politics in South America, joining FIFA is not, and never will be, an option.”
Hope prevails that the league will recommence and signify a return to organised football on the Falkland Islands. The FIFL are hoping to receive a grant from the Falkland government for an artificial football pitch.
From a league that has to clear off the tortoises before they can play, to a team that are so remote they have been unable to play a competitive match for three years, the islands of the South Atlantic Ocean go to extraordinary lengths just to enjoy a game of football.
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