Solomon Islands: Country located northeast of Australia. Two archipelagos; almost 1,000 islands. 600,000 inhabitants. Half are children. Tropical climate with five months of rainy season. Its capital, Haniara, only has two urbanized neighborhoods; the rest are favelas. The main stadium uses a slope as a grandstand. That's where LaLiga has come to promote football.
Felipe Vega-Arango got up on a Monday two years ago at 5 in the morning in his native Gijón to arrive punctually on his first day of work. The office was far away. Far away. He arrived three days later. He traveled almost 16,000 kilometers. He was flying for 24 hours, more than 30 hours with stops at the airports of Dubai and Brisbane. Their destination was Solomon Islands, a former British colony in Melanesia, east of New Guinea and northeast of Australia. "It is, along with New Zealand, the longest route that can be made from Spain", states this Asturian of 47 years. The Solomon football federation had asked LaLiga for help in reviving their selection, which in 2017 was among the most modest in the world.
Vega-Arango landed there to take charge of the technical direction, sent by the Department of Sports Projects of LaLiga, which performs similar training and advisory work in 32 countries around the world. A short time later they named him a coach. After almost two years of work, it has been worth a trip so long: the Spanish coach has achieved, in one of the few countries in Oceania where football is (by far) the king sport, that his national team reaches results without precedents
The documentary The worst team in the world (Next goal wins), 2014, tells the arrival of Dutch coach Thomas Rongen to the bench of American Samoa, sadly famous combination to fit the biggest official win in history, 31-0 against Australia in 2001. At the time of the arrival of Vega-Arango Solomon Islands, the local team ranked 187 in the ranking FIFA. American Samoa was only four steps below. Rongen had the titanic task of classifying his team for the 2014 World Cup. Vega-Arango's goal was more realistic: "We wanted to create football structures, especially for the youngest ones, establish a method, train coaches. Apply there the knowledge and work systems that are in LaLiga. And, also, that we got less goals. "
American Samoa is still ranked 19th in FIFA. Solomon Islands has shot up to 144. It is the second best selection of the Oceania Confederation, just behind New Zealand (Australia competes in the Asian Confederation) and above its historical rival, the former French colony of New Caledonia. The Brazil of the Pacific, as the Salomonense team is known for its colors and for practicing a game of "similar to that in Spain" according to the Gijón-born coach, returns to smile.
Three achievements illustrate the good work done by Vega-Arango. The senior team, who trains himself, managed to reach the final in Oceania for the 2018 Russian classification after winning in the first leg and the return to Papua New Guinea, a country with eight million inhabitants compared to 600,000 Solomon Islands. In that one-match final against New Zealand they received a 6-1 first leg, but in the second leg they drew 2-2 against the best team in their field. "We played that game in Honiara, the capital of the country. There were some 20,000 people cheering the team up in a stadium [el Lawson Tama] that does not even have steps: the public sees it from a hillside, "recalls the Asturian coach. "We lost, but that match was tied and the people were happy. It was a party".
With that team was Solomon Islands to the Mini Pacific Games held in Vanuatu at the end of 2017. They won three of the five games they played, tied another and fell in the last, against Vanuatu herself, who was champion. "We only conceded three goals in five games and scored 17, a feat." But after that feat, I expected a bigger one for the football history of the Solomon Islands: compete in a World Cup. The U-17 team has qualified for the world championship of the category to be held in Peru next year. The boys of the sub-16 team, trained by a local coach formed by Vega-Arango with the methodology and materials of LaLiga, were (almost) perfect in the classification championship of the oceanic confederation that was played at home, at the Lawson Tama from Honiara. They won the four games played until the final, including a 5-0 to the powerful New Zealand, which had conquered the tournament the last six times.
In the final they crossed paths with the All Whites (They are so known because they play white, as opposed to the uniform of the great New Zealand sports symbol, their rugby team). Draw and penalties. 4-5 for New Zealand against 12,000 Solomon Islands. But the position in the 2019 World Cup in Peru was already guaranteed. "It's an unprecedented success. Never any of the soccer teams had qualified for a World Cup ", summarizes Vega-Arango, whom now everyone knows in Guadalcanal, the main island of the territory:" They stop me on the street, they know me and they encourage me. We have achieved something very big and very important, especially for a country so poor and with very high unemployment rates. "
The Sports Projects Department of LaLiga has sent 320 Spanish coaches to train players and coaches in places like China, India, the United States or Abu Dhabi. The person in charge of the area, Hugo Blanco, describes the objectives and results harvested: "It is about applying our knowledge in places where football is not so developed and adapting the LaLiga method to those countries. We have prepared some 7,000 coaches and 80,000 players of different ages, which also allows the name of LaLiga to be known more and more in these territories and to appreciate Spanish football. "
"They stop me on the street, they know me and they encourage me. We have achieved something very big, especially for a country so poor and with very high rates of unemployment "
"The only secret is hard work." Vega-Arango cites Sir Alex Ferguson to try to explain the great transformation of local football. All part of the planning. "We designed an action method together with the Sports Projects department of LaLiga. The first thing I did when I arrived was to get in touch with the soccer environment. I talked to exfutbolistas, played pachangas in different fields, went to the parks and walked to discover how everything worked in the country, "says the technician.
From there, always in contact with the Spanish entity, Vega-Arango created some guidelines to improve the football structure: "I'm on the ground and I tell you how I see it. More competitions were promoted so that there was a regularity, material resources were provided and many coaches were trained ".
190 technicians were prepared during 2017. This year there are 240. The number of children who have received training or workshops from Vega-Arango and his team is difficult to calculate: "Only for the U-16 team we saw about 190 kids. A fool! We have organized several competitions. And I toured the country to see how they played in some communities [Islas Salomón está formada por dos archipiélagos que suman casi un millar de islas]. LaLiga sent more than 1,000 official balls. When I traveled to a remote place, I saw the competition, we did workshops and gave material so they could continue ". The Spaniard estimates that he will have prepared more or less 3,500 children.
Kids with a desire to play football precisely do not lack in a country in which half of the population is underage. "You see children everywhere. You see a lot of gangs playing in the street, like we did in my generation in Spain. They are poor, they do not have tablets or mobile phones and many do not even have money to go to school, but they play, and football is very important in their lives, "says Vega-Arango, who spent a good part of his career as a technician in the Mareo school of Sporting de Gijón.
Solomon Islands has one of the lowest Human Development indices on the planet. "In the capital, Haniara, you hardly see buildings, there are only two urbanized neighborhoods and the rest are favelas. They live in very harsh conditions, "says Vega-Arango. Its climate is tropical, hot and with a rainy season that lasts five months, but even in these conditions they do not leave football aside.
"It's the king of sports and one of his main hobbies. The help of LaLiga has been very important in that regard. One of the boys of the sub-17 will be able to study in New Zealand thanks to a scholarship. Without this support it would not have been possible to get where they are now, "says the Asturian coach.
"We have prepared some 7,000 coaches and 80,000 players in 32 countries. That allows the name of LaLiga to be known more and more in these territories and to appreciate Spanish football "
Hugo Blanco, responsible for Sports Projects of LaLiga
Vega-Arango values the experience lived in these almost two years leading Solomon football: "I learned a lot. As a representative of the Federation of Solomon Islands I have attended many FIFA meetings, the World Cup technical committee or the awards ceremonies. I have been able to know in depth the structures of sports and competitions. Having a country behind is an immense responsibility and that I have also had to manage it. "
Personally, the experiences have also left lessons: "It has been very enriching. It's amazing how difficult life is here, and they never protest. It helps me to be clear that we are all people with a life behind work and that we have to be careful in dealing with others, because something may be happening to them and you can not prejudge their attitude. "
The future of football in Solomon Islands is to continue strengthening its organization and training young people. "The priority is to continue opening doors for children. Have teams to play with good coaches, a system of competition and perseverance, "says Vega-Arango, who is still unclear if he will live in Solomon Islands next year. "They want me to stay at least until the World Cup in Peru but I do not know what the future will hold for me." The legacy of his work with LaLiga is already palpable. His path and that of Solomon Islands have a common denominator, the maxim of the Gijon technician: "Keep working hard."