A match at Solomon Islands’ Lawson Tama stadium is always a special occasion. The venue in the capital Honiara is comfortably the largest in Oceania outside New Zealand, and is renowned across the continent for its matchday colour and verve. Wedged at the bottom of a massive hillside, the venue regularly attracts well in excess of five-figures whenever the local heroes take the field. It is an extraordinary figure given the island of Guadalcanal, where Honiara is located, boasts a population of some 100,000.
Next month’s home 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifier will take on even more enormity for local supporters. A defeat against Papua New Guinea will virtually ensure their exit from Russia 2018 qualifying. A win, however, will put them in touching distance of claiming a ticket to the OFC play-off against New Zealand.
And there is an added incentive. Progress at PNG’s expense will extend the career of local hero Henry Fa’Arodo. After 15 years of service for the Bonitos – as the national team is affectionately known – Fa’Arodo’s time at the very top is coming to a close. Fa’Arodo is one of the few Solomon Islanders to play professional football, having featured for Perth Glory in Australia’s A-League. He also recently became Solo’s most-capped player, and sits alongside former colleagues Batram Suri and Commins Menapi as one of the nation’s most iconic sportsman.
All on the line
Solomons host PNG before a return in Port Moresby a few days later. Four points for either side will be enough to progress, while anything less will open the door for Tahiti. Fa’Arodo says Lawson Tama’s reputation is wide recognised in the Pacific and is always a factor.
“We always have the backing of the crowd and all of the Pacific knows what it is like to play in the Solomons,” Fa’Arodo told FIFA.com. “It will be good to have a crowd that is behind the Solomons and a bit more patriotic as well. Coming back home is always a good chance for us to get maximum points as we plan to do.”
— OFC Oceania Football (@OFCfootball) March 29, 2017
Though now 34, Fa’Arodo has lost little of his influence, and only recently was named best player in the Solomon Islands national league following a stellar campaign for Western United. Equally, the forward’s experience is also invaluable in a squad light on for worldliness. Vanuatu-based Harrison Mala and Charlie Otainao, as well as Auckland City star Micah Lea’alafa, were the only three overseas-based players recently called up to join the national side.
Reviving the glory days
But Fa’Arodo, a player long renowned for his raw speed, is conscious that ageing is one opponent which cannot be defeated. “For me, I feel I have a good career, but all good things must come to an end,” he said.
“This could be my last outing on the international stage, which motivates to achieve a bit more. I have been to a few World Cup qualifiers, including the Australia ones. I would like to go out on a high and achieve something special in this qualifying campaign.”
Those ‘Australia ones’ Fa’Arodo refers to was perhaps the biggest moment in the country’s sporting history. Talismanic Dutch coach Guus Hiddink led his star-studded Socceroos into town - Mark Viduka, Tim Cahill, et al – for a Germany 2006 World Cup qualifier. Fa’Arodo scored from the penalty spot as Australia prevailed with a narrow 2-1 scoreline. It was part of a hugely credible campaign that saw the early elimination of New Zealand, and an earlier 2-2 draw against the Socceroos.
Since then Solomon Islands’ international progress has stalled to a degree. But Fa’Arodo, in his new role as the Federation’s Technical and Development Director, can have a say in the future direction of the local game.
“There are better equipped coaches with more knowledge and understanding of the game compared to when I was coming through the ranks,” Fa’Arodo said. “I think the future is looking good for Solomons football. We want to be a country to be reckoned with in the Pacific.”