A croc of a way to train
CAPTAIN "RBC" plays a vital role in developing the technical skills of many Solomon Islands soccer players but he has never kicked a ball.
The wrinkled one is the resident crocodile wallowing in the mud adjacent to Honiara's main training pitch where he and his "mates" in the nearby creek claim any balls kicked errantly in their direction.
With such a fate awaiting any wayward efforts, it is little wonder the players quickly hone their skills.
In a country where a new football costs the equivalent of two weeks' take- home pay for a secondary school teacher, nothing is taken for granted.
Soccer balls and boots are not so much "must have" but "would dearly love" items for just about every Solomon Islands child.
Soccer is the very fabric of this society of 530,000 from 990 widespread islands. Only religion, it appears, holds greater joy.
Last weekend's Oceania Champions League match between Auckland City and Solomon Islands side Koloale FC was another reminder that the island nations of the Oceania Football Confederation will, more and more, pose a genuine threat - particularly at age group level and especially in Futsal and beach soccer - to the long-held domination enjoyed by New Zealand teams.
In much the same way as young South American boys grow up with a ball at their feet, Solomon Islands youngsters instinctively take to soccer.
Improvisation, again, very much their way of life.
A lack of even half-decent facilities is seemingly no barrier.
Enthusiasm takes over as these aspiring young footballers set out to follow their heroes - players like Batram Suri, Commins Menapi, Henry Fa'arodo, Benjamin Totori, George Suri and others including Michael Fifi and current Waitakere player Gagame Feni - to the bigger leagues in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere.
It is, in many ways, an explosion waiting to happen.
This lack of "perfect" facilities has led to a skill level honed by learning their craft on rough and ready chunks of land, on pot-holed concrete, beaches and anywhere else a football can be kicked.
"To have and to hold" has a vastly different meaning for these children. Give up possession in an after-school kick-around can mean a 30-minute wait before getting the ball back and the chance to show off well-honed silky skills.
That island teams within the 11-nation Oceania Confederation have dominated five-a-side Futsal (created initially as an indoor game on a small-sized pitch but now played outdoors as well) and beach soccer is no fluke.
In being forced to play on sandy or, by New Zealand standards, sub-standard and often small pitches, these players have developed individual skills most New Zealand youngsters can only dream about.
Herein lies part of the reason why they have struggled to make their mark in the more established 11-a-side game.
In these smaller versions of the sport (with fewer players) these skills are developed to complement the needs of Futsal and beach soccer.
Solomon Islands football was kick-started in the early 1990s when Kevin Fallon and now long-serving OFC development officer Glenn Turner arrived in Honiara to set up a Centre of Excellence.
That Oceania initiative followed a historic 2-0 win by the Solomons over New Zealand in the Under-17 Championships at Honiara's Lawson Tama Stadium.
In the following years, through Fallon, players headed to Nelson College and later Mt Albert Grammar School to further their education - on and off the football field.
Jerry Allen, one of the first to join Fallon's MAGS academy, has gone on to coach Papua New Guinea's Hekari United, taking them to last year's Fifa Club World Cup after beating Waitakere United in the O-League final.
While the talents of these obviously gifted players and coaches talents continue to make their mark and are, rightly, seen as pathfinders, there is still much to be done to make the sport in the Solomons all-encompassing.
General secretary Eddie Ngava has a staff of 20 working from his small Honiara office. He oversees players in 10 provincial associations but admits finding grounds to accommodate the 18,000 registered players - and that is only a guess at this stage - is a constant battle.
"We have received support from Oceania through Fifa's Goal Projects," said Ngava, "but we are always looking for more places to play. We have no idea how many kids are playing here but we have a project in place which we hope will, by the end of this year, give us a better idea.
"Soccer is a sport that was introduced to us by the missionaries and grew to become a celebration of Christian festivals. Until very recently, no games were played on Sundays. Just as no women played."
With the advent of better structures, the raw talent in this soccer-proud nation has blossomed.
Given the abounding natural talent, it will not, one feels, be long before these smaller countries become an even bigger force and a genuine threat to New Zealand's "top dog" status in the OFC.