Bong Kalo pointing out to Ascona town, located in the south of Switzerland, where he currently plays for FC Ascona

The public in Vanuatu is following Bong Kalo’s move to Europe with the keenest of interest, albeit not so much because of his obvious potential and footballing abilities, but also because Vanuatu, like any other nations in the region, is an unknown quantity in global football terms.

I make that statement with the greatest respect to VFF and OFC as affiliates of FIFA.

Fortunately for many players in this part of the world, Kalo’s move represents a tiny glimmer of hope that if authorities injected more resources into sports, so that they are properly run and marketed, youths like him could dream big of following in his footsteps. Everyone who follows football surely has read rugs-to-riches stories of people like the famous Diego Maradona, big Brazilian names like Ronaldo and Rivaldo and many other African examples — former Arsenal fullback Laurent and former Portsmouth forward, Lomana LuaLua.

Since Kalo’s U-20 World Cup heroics in Korea Republic, it has been obvious the boy from Port Resolution, South-east Tanna wants more. His hunger and thirst for success is self-evident. How many teenagers out there break into the ranks of their senior squad and remain there for a good number of years until they reach their twenties? Not very many when you consider many of the social distractions at play in this part of our world.

To his credit those performances have kept the diminutive midfield maestro in the limelight for a fair bit of time. He has been playing non-stop football throughout the last season, not only with his former club Tafea FC, but also in various other competitions with his OFC Champions League Club, Nalkutan FC—capping it off with his final appearance with local side Amicale FC on temporary transfer, when he put on a man-of-the-match performance against Sydney Wanderers at the Port Vila stadium.

And what a send off that was, when he scored that majestic goal against the Wanderers. Fans will long cherish that moment.

Fingers crossed, let’s hope, the best is yet to come, and that he can fully translate his obvious potentials into something much bigger. The good thing is Kalo is far from a finished product. One can only hope that his exposure at the highest level will elevate him further.

Vanuatu’s first ever World Cup experience at FIFA’s biggest youth flagship tournament in Korea Republic last June is unprecedented in the last 70-plus years that Vanuatu football has been around. Kalo and his U-20 colleagues’ story build on the already rich and great history of Vanuatu football.

Kalo’s mentor and former coach, Moise Poida, confirms Bong has all the ingredients to succeed. “He has it, just the right temperament. I see in this boy a very strong desire to succeed. He possesses a tough mental strength that belies his age; a lion-heart that makes him head and shoulders above many of his peers. I think he is ready for it,” says Poida.

Thanks to his Tafea FC roots and the club’s strong will to win; a no nonsense philosophy to every competition that the club has been a part of, Kalo’s psyche seems ready for it. That is exactly what he is doing right now in FC Ascona for the next three months at least.

Many are following his every step, thanks to the power of social media. Admittedly not everyone had the confidence his going to Spain for a 10-day trial would necessarily end in him penning a longer stay. Fresh memories of Selonie Iaruel’s brush with English top flight, Stoke City in 2015, Brian Kaltack’s NZ stint and Francois Sakama’s Maccabi Tel Aviv experience, means there is always that feeling of doubt playing up in your mind.

I am told Bong arrived in Spain when all his peers at Deportivo Leganes were at their highest peaks physically, mentally and technically—having been with the club for more than a month. As if the challenge wasn’t daunting enough, the transfer window was closing right behind him. Fortunately, for Bong Kalo, Korea Republic threw the door ajar and it was as if a force was catapulting him beyond the point of no return.

Why FC Ascona deal is a masterstroke

I turn now to why I think his move to FC Ascona is a masterstroke. According to Poida, in Ascona Bong finds a “home” in Europe first and foremost. It is not easy for someone as young as him, to be plucked from modest roots of Freshwota 5, and dumped in the middle of nowhere in Europe.

In terms of language, Switzerland uses both English and French. Not only that, players in the club converse more in English, which means for Bong he can build friendships and find his way around better. He might even be able to negotiate his own terms. This was not the case in Spain where everybody spoke Spanish. The language barked out in training was Spanish and people were not sociable to Bong’s liking.

Of course Kalo can use his free time in Switzerland; now that he is settled to mingle and learn a bit more. Not only that, but Poida admits, the people there are nicer compared to Spain.

But more than that. If one were to consider all the factors at play they should appreciate why. In International football, there is quite a bit of layer that one has to peel and deal with first before they can actually get to peer into the backroom of an international club of Deportivo Leganes’ standing.

By now everyone should have learned that after the trial, Leganes was prepared to take on Bong for free for the purposes of assessing him further. If this option had been taken, two things could have happened. Firstly he could have fallen short because of his lack of preparedness and conditioning for such a major step. Secondly, who in their right mind would ditch a deal that offered accommodation, food and an allowance that’s way beyond any local player here could imagine.

Ascona is, if you like, Bong’s springboard for now. For this, fans should appreciate that in Bong’s current agent, a man I am told acts on behalf of 50 or so other professionals, Vanuatu football and Bong Kalo have the best in terms of the ins and outs of European football. And, he lives just next to where the player is temporarily plying his trade. In weighing up all the options both Andrew Leong and Poida just could not afford to walk away from that kind of connection.

“What many of us do not understand is the nature of the game of football today,” says Poida. To put it mildly, football is a multi-billion dollar business that we in the small island states will need a bit more time to fully come to terms with.

“Football in Europe is a completely different animal to what we are used to,” says Poida who likened Bong Kalo’s Leganes trial to a sixth grader being placed straight into an exam room filled with grade 12 high schoolers ¬- well drilled; and have had the time and space to get themselves in the right condition to take the exams.

“Such was the reality staring at us in the face. I felt straightaway after that, that the trial was grossly unfair. However I praise the youngster’s tenacity and firmness of character. He pulled through. The boy wants success, and he wants it big,” says Poida.

“Football today is all about who you know,” he adds. Yes you have to have the talent and the skills. That is mandatory but to strike it big, you need more. It’s about building a basis from which one can stand on to take the next step.

Poida goes on, “We’ve been knocking on these doors since my playing days, or even before that. We haven’t succeeded. I am glad I have gone there; touched and tasted it firsthand. I can tell you it’s a completely different kettle of fish,” he says.

But thanks to the ingenuity and business mindsets of people like Andrew Leong, whose love for football is something else, Bong Kalo could be destined for a brighter future.

Andrew may have attracted some criticisms for trying out something different when he mixed local and foreign talents at Amicale; you still have to credit him for some of the success we are now seeing with the progress and standards of football now on display at Port Vila stadium, and Bong Kalo’s break into Europe.

I have to admit it. Despite my Tafea FC connections (where there is always a strong philosophy of developing home grown talents), I whole-heartedly believe Andrew’s boldness was the best Vanuatu could have ever hoped for.

It might have not yielded the expected outcome Mr Leong so craved, his philosophy has bore fruit in great ways. And that’s solely because football is a business that everyone needs to appreciate. Long gone are the days when football was played just for the fun and love of the game. Thank you Andrew for setting the stage!

One last piece of advice from Poida: “The one thing that we hold so highly and tightly in our culture — respect — is something that potential candidates may need to seriously think about if they want to follow in Bong Kalo’s footsteps. To succeed, you will need to put that aside. The person closest to you is your competitor; even your archenemy. Both of you want the same prize,” he says.

In European context one cannot afford to hold back, or show respect when it comes to the crunch.

Bong Kalo’s next steps? A deal is already lined up to get him a full professional contract. Sorry I wasn’t allowed to elaborate. Who knows, maybe Bong Timothy Kalo’s next move will make someone in Zurich, Paris, Frankfurt or London sit up and take notice of the quality and quantity we have around here.

Raymond Nasse

Sports Editor

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