It’s a former Pacific Island prison colony with a population of 270,000 but New Caledonia is emerging as one of the most unlikely outposts of young football talent.
The tiny territory is situated around 900 miles off the east coast of Australia and is best known as a paradise for snorkellers. Run it through a Google search and you are greeted with the kind of sun-saturated pictures that seem pulled straight out of a holiday brochure.
It sounds perfect for a honeymoon but less ideal for developing elite footballers. And yet tomorrow they begin their second campaign in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Indonesia, the showcase for the planet’s best young players, with a game against England, the 2017 champions. After that it’s Brazil (whose population is almost 1,000 times greater) and, finally, Iran. Beyond that, who knows? There may even be a possible meeting with the United States.
New Caledonia is one of only two countries playing at the Under-17 World Cup never to have qualified for the senior version (the other is Burkina Faso) and by far the smallest represented in Indonesia.
Technically, it is an overseas territory of France, having been annexed by Emperor Napoleon III in 1853 (French is still the official language). Over the years there have been divisions, often violent, between the native Kanaks and European settlers. This has led to three independence votes in 2018, 2020 and 2021 — yet in each one, they have chosen to stay French.
It is a complicated, and not always happy history. But tournaments like the Under-17 World Cup offer New Caledonia the chance to stand apart.
“It’s always a privilege for me to talk about New Caledonia, my country,” says Christian Karembeu, the archipelago’s most famous footballing son, who left aged 17 to begin his professional career at French club Nantes before moving to Sampdoria and then Real Madrid. “Football is very, very popular in Oceania – not only in New Caledonia but the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand.
“We have our indigenous population, we share our culture and we are proud of it. It is still a French territory, with everyone living all together. We passed through many difficulties when I was young with civil wars, fighting. But now we have our identity and we can live together. We are proud of our culture, and of our team.”
Eighty per cent of the New Caledonia squad have come through the FCF academy in the capital city of Noumea, set up last year with the help of FIFA and the Oceania Football Confederation, which also supports the children in their education via a partnership with the Do Kamo secondary school where Karembeu was once a pupil. FIFA president Gianni Infantino visited in August this year.
New Caledonia have also benefited from FIFA’s talent development scheme which aims to provide them and 24 other countries with top quality coaching for two years. FIFA wants to install academies in every country around the world by the end of 2026 as part of a $200million (£163.8m) investment overseen by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
It means that New Caledonia, for all its geographical isolation and relative lack of historical pedigree, is able to offer opportunities that were simply not there for the likes of Karembeu 30 years ago.
“The confederation now has more programmes and academies to help find talent and to give the kids the right tools and infrastructure to play football,” he adds. “We want them to achieve their dreams. Participating in a World Cup is a big visibility for our country, our youth and also to inspire the countries in the region. We can learn to play at a high level in a tough competition. We can gain knowledge. I hope the kids can surprise us and they can get taken on by clubs in Europe. The more we have competitions, the more we can keep improving.”
So, who are they exactly? The New Caledonia squad includes, according to their French manager Leo Lopez, the “talented but modest” defender Wadria Hanye, Greg Diko, a player with “enormous potential”, Ronald Nganyane, described as the “life of the party”, captain and striker Nolhann Alebate, who idolises Kylian Mbappe and forward Jean-Philippe Angexetine, from Lifou Island and known as ‘Aquaman’ as he still lives in a very traditional way.
“He (Angexetine) was like a fish out of water in Fiji at the beginning of the year — I think that was the first time he had left New Caledonia,” Lopez told Fifa.com. “Sometimes he seems a little sleepy, but it’s because he’s not used to really fast-paced days.”
The squad had a taste of tournament football earlier this year when they featured in the Montaigu Under-16s competition in France in April. They came third in a group comprising of England (the eventual winners), Belgium and the Central African Republic.
They qualified for this month’s World Cup after finishing as runners-up at the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Under-17 championship, held in Fiji in January 2023. They beat Samoa and Tahiti in the knockout phase before losing 1-0 to New Zealand in the final. Alebate was named as player of the tournament after scoring three times.
Realistically, ruffling the feathers of established heavyweights such as England and Brazil will be difficult: a more realistic aim may be to eclipse the one point they gained in the 2017 tournament, courtesy of a draw with Japan. And yet while the team does not lack ambition, participating in itself will be valuable in setting up New Caledonia for bigger challenges in the years to come.
“The objective is to combine two things — the human adventure and experience but also to show the world that we know how to play football in New Caledonia”, Lopez, 42, said. “The important thing is to learn as much as possible to ensure we grow for the future.”
Karembeu will do his best to track his compatriots’ progress from his current vantage point as sporting director of the Greek club Olympiacos. And while he acknowledges the challenge awaiting Lopez’s side, he is optimistic about their chances.
“The kids will try to lift their levels and respond,” he said. “In football, we talk about passion and mindset. We will try to be united and find another way to play those games.”
(Top photos: Kyllian Wiako and Jytrhim Upa, and a beach in New Caledonia; both Getty Images)