By Joey Lynch
Header photo: Joseph Mayers
For Tijan McKenna, the Junior Matildas’ tour of the Pacific is serving not only as important preparation for the coming AFC U16 Championships but also presenting her and her teammates with a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to broaden their horizons.
West Australian-born McKenna was one of 23 of Australia’s brightest U16 prospects that jetted off on a three-nation tour of the Pacific earlier in August as part of the Junior Matildas’ preparations for this September’s AFC Championships; Head Coach Rae Dower’s side having since defeated Tonga and Vanuatu and now preparing to meet the Solomon Islands on August 15.
The hot and humid conditions being experienced by the squad during their travels should, in theory, place them in good stead when they face Thailand, Japan and Bangladesh in the group stages of the AFC U16 Championship’s in Thailand.
The visit to the Pacific, though, is providing much more than just an opportunity to get a few warm-up fixtures in.
Accompanying the Junior Matildas on the tour – the first visit to the region by an Australian national team since the Socceroos in 2005 – is an extended party made up of officials from the FFA’s International Relations Unit, W-League players and officials, development officers and an enlarged media unit.
Subsidised by the Australian Government and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of ongoing “Pacific Step-Up” efforts, the tour is also doubling as a means of fostering improved relations between Australia and its Pacific neighbours through the power of sport.
— Westfield Matildas (@TheMatildas) August 10, 2019
Therefore, across their three stops, the travelling party has been able to go beyond the football field in order to provide much-needed development and empowerment opportunities for young footballers – both boys and girls – in the three nations being visited, as well as building ties that will last a lifetime.
“I was a bit nervous coming because I haven’t been to any places like this before but I found it pretty easy to get into the environment because of the team I was with and how easy everyone was to gel with,” McKenna – who is visiting the Pacific for the first time – said from Vanuatu.
“And the people of each place we’ve been to have been so welcoming. So, I’ve been able to fit in and enjoy the experience.
Photo: Joseph Mayers
“When I heard that I was going, I was expecting it to be hard, knowing that we all want to be here to try and get in the squad for Thailand and prepare ourselves. And then in Tonga we went to the blowholes and then we did a cultural experience; I didn’t expect to go out that much!
“I found that quite exciting; getting to know and seeing parts of Tonga.
“We went to the blowholes [The ”Mapu ‘A Vaea Blowholes near the Tongan village of Houma] and I hadn’t experienced something like that before, that was really good. And then, on the cultural side, they showed us how they live their lives and I got to try on one of the dresses that they wear out to special events. So, that was really fun.
“And then we went to the Blue Lagoon and it was just so beautiful and clear. It was nice to see the way that they… how clean their environment is and how beautiful their place is compared to ours because we don’t have anything like that back in Australia – WA for me – so being able to go there was a once in a lifetime experience.”
The cultural exchange extended not only to the player’s Tongan surrounds but also the football field when, in a moment almost unprecedented in international football, the Tongan U19 side and Junior Matildas held a joint training session just a day before they were set to meet in a competitive match.
“At the start of the session, when we were meeting everyone, it was a bit weird for me because we were going to face them the next day,” McKenna recalled.
“But when I got to meet all the girls and we had to get into partners, I think I gelled with the person I was with a lot. She was very kind.
We received an amazing musical welcome in the Solomon Islands! 🇸🇧
— Westfield Matildas (@TheMatildas) August 13, 2019
“For me, it was a bit awkward the next day trying to… not annihilate… but beat them and go hard on them. That was awkward. But the experience of playing with their national team and training with them was a really good experience to take away from Tonga.
“When I was young growing up, I just did all those little 5 v 5 a side games and when I met all these kids here and asked them questions – have they played soccer? – and they say yes, it’s easy to talk with someone that plays the same game as you.
“I think about the girls we met in Tonga. They told me they’d played all their lives and they wanted to continue and make a career out of that. We asked them if they wanted to come to Australia and they said no, and when we asked why they said: ‘Because we love our country so much.’
“The history they played soccer with was the way they wanted to play. They wanted to express their own way of playing for their country.”