Fiji and the Solomon Islands play to a scoreless tie in a June 4 match at Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara, Solomon Islands. / Matthew Fishbane
These days, Auki, the provincial capital of Malaita, Solomon Islands, can only be reached by boat. In June, when I was there to report on its remoteness, a land dispute involving rival tribes and government ministers had temporarily shut down the local runway. A pristine cement wharf, funded through Malaysian cooperation and yet to be duly inaugurated, also sat idle in the lagoon. This meant that the Vanuatu national soccer team, in country to prepare for the Oceania Football Confederation’s 2012 Nations Cup, had to disembark at Auki’s old wharf, into a churning muddy mass of people hauling copra, cassava, bananas, mackerel, boxes of ramen noodles, caged pigs, palm-leaf thatch, oil drums, and corrugated roofing—a scene vividly underlain with the blood-red Pollockian splatter of betel nut juice.
The Vanuatuans’ arrival the day before at Honiara International Airport on Guadalcanal had been more ceremonious. Team members, in matching surf trunks, plastic flip-flops, and gray “Vanuatu” T-shirts, were led to an open-air hut outside the terminal, where a fourteen-piece traditional pan-pipe band, in grass skirts and chalky body-paint, played in their honor. Band and team then posed together for a photograph that ran on the cover of the next day’s Solomon Star. The athletes chugged off to their training retreat across the searing blue waters of the Solomon Sea, over an ocean floor dotted with hundreds of wrecks from World War II. A few miles inland from Auki’s dusty port, at Aligegoe Field—a wide flat expanse of tough grass and sinkholes framed by goalposts and bleachers—Vanuatuans ran drills, squeezed sponges of water over their heads, listened to coaching exhortations in French, and scrimmaged against a team of locals, beating them at least 16-0. Then they returned to the capital for their first game at freshly sodded Lawson Tama Stadium, against their French-colonial rivals, New Caledonia.
The 2014 World Cup-qualifying tournament was a major event in Honiara and across the tiny South Pacific nation of 550,000, which has yet to fully shake a reputation for lawlessness and disorder in the wake of violent ethnic conflict between Malaitans and the capital-dwellers on Guadalcanal in 1999 and 2000. Australian-led regional officials, who actively policed the Solomons in the subsequent power vacuum, have only recently handed back the reins to newly trained security forces. A succession of competing governments have tried to shore up donor aid money, manage disputed gold mines, leverage fisheries in the protein-hungry Pacific, and grow a nascent tourism industry around beaches, jungles, villages, wreck diving, and, as a bearded Australian put it to me, “beer ’n’ bonkin’.”
On the first day of the tournament, Vanuatu was no match for New Caledonia, losing 5-2 behind a hat trick from dreadlocked striker Bertrand Kaï. The Samoans, pitifully outgunned, lost 10-1 to Tahiti Nui and 9-0 to New Caledonia. The Solomon Islands team, known as the Bonito, drew such a fevered crowd to the sun-drenched hill opposite the Lawson Tama grandstand that police had to rope off the stadium and force a number of fans out. One acquaintance told me the disturbance was as close as the capital had come to a serious riot in a number of years, adding, “You don’t know what can happen here.” Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation covered every game over the ten days of play, in a lilting Pidgin that sounds something like the future’s global language, only more courteous. The Bonito managed to secure their first ever tie with the New Zealand All Whites to reach the semifinals, only to lose to the eventual champions, Tahiti Nui, and end up in fourth place.
To host anything in the Solomons is no mean feat. Nearly a quarter of Islanders live in poverty. The majority are subsistence farmers or fishermen. There are not nearly enough jobs in Honiara. Sovereignty remains the archipelago’s most valuable asset.
Yet the Nations Cup was just the first of four international affairs hosted under Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo this year, and its early success prompted a declaration, propagated in the Solomon Star, of 2012 as the “Year of Tourism.” The motto: “Tourism Development in Harmony with Nature and Culture.” The 11th Festival of Pacific Arts (“Culture in Harmony with Nature”) ran for two weeks in July, during which representatives of island cultures reenacted their once-fearsome war dances. August marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Allies’ pivotal Guadalcanal campaign. And in September the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate, made a royal visit in honor of the Queen’s diamond jubilee—their first to the Commonwealth realm. Interviewed by the Star, Lilo called the year’s events “a moment to show our foreign friends who really we are.”