Women’s football in Tonga got the restart it deserves at the weekend as the Heilala Manongi project relaunched to great fanfare.
The programme, first launched in mid-March before Covid-19 saw Tonga close down all sporting activities in a bid to ensure the coronavirus didn’t infiltrate the community, aims to create pathways for players, coaches and referees in a fun, collaborative environment specifically tailored to the Tongan environment and local community needs.
On Saturday, 15 August, the first official event following lockdown was held with organisers rightfully delighted at the turnout and engagement.
“Honestly, I was on cloud nine,” said head of women’s football for Tonga Football Association, Adelaide Fe’aomoefehi Tu’ivailala.
“It was a short period to prepare but the turn out was huge. We almost couldn’t cater for the number of girls who attended, their performance was much improved compared to when I first saw them back in March, and the enthusiasm was evident from the youngest up to the oldest participants.”
More than 400 girls joined the activities, which began with a walking parade from GPS Veitongo to the Loto-Tonga Soccer Centre before the festivities began.
Palu ‘Uhatahi Tu’amoheloa is the women’s football representative to the TFA Executive Committee, as well as running the OFC Just Play Programme in Tonga, and said it was an exciting prospect to have Heilala Manongi back up-and-running.
“This event is one of the most impressive women’s football projects we have had and I am glad we started again today otherwise interest might drift away because we’ve been at rest for the past four months. I am so grateful that our Heilala Manongi volunteers are still committed.”
Tu’ivailala said there was some apprehension around the return following bad weather on Friday night but she’s pleased they persevered.
“It was raining all night Friday and they asked if we postpone it until we get some good weather, but I said no. I knew the sun would shine on Saturday and I woke up with a heart full of gratitude to God for granting us permission to continue on with our festival as planned,” she said.
“I didn’t know that the Veitongo community planned to march from the GPS Veitongo to the football fields prior to the festival but they brought a loud DJ along with them and it really lifted everyone’s spirit and helped set the scene for the day’s events.”
Among the Veitongo community were Veitongo FC, the men’s senior side, led by head coach Ma’ake who is also a Heilala Manongi volunteer.
The players helped run the festival, joining in with the young girls and showing great support for the programme and its objectives.
“We are very grateful to have the team show their support for Heilala Manongi,” Tu’ivailala said.
Tu’ivailala made it clear Heilala Manongi isn’t just for Tongatapu communities, with Ha’apai, Vava’u and ‘Eua islands all preparing for visits from the organising committee as the programme gets set to launch to a wider audience.
“We’re catching the boat to Ha’apai this morning to prepare for the launch of Heilala Manongi in Ha’apai this Saturday. From there we will go to Vava’u for a refresher course with their volunteers and will host a festival before sailing to ‘Eua where will do things similar to Vava’u,” Tu’ivailala explained.
“Upon completion of these four island visits, around the first week of September, they will continue on to implement the curriculum which has been tailored to the local situation. This will run for 16 weeks and then two teams from Vava’u, two from ‘Eua, one from Hap’apai and three teams from Tongatapu will compete for the inaugural Heilala Manongi Cup in early January 2021.”
With the majority of Tonga’s island communities being brought into the fold one island group still remains, but hasn’t been forgotten by organisers.
The Niua Islands is the northernmost island group in Tonga consisting of Niuafo’ou, Niuatoputapu and Tafahi. According to Tu’ivailala there aren’t currently any domestic flights to the Niua Islands however that may change in September.
“We are so looking forward to reaching the Niuas, we leave no one behind!”
Additional reporting: tongafootball.to