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Meleseini Tufui from the Just Play program in Tonga / Team Up

Football in Tonga

Meleseini Tufui plays an inspiring role in using the power of football to change lives in Tonga, having been transformed by the sport herself.

Tufui, or MJ as she is known by friends, is part of the Tongan women’s national football team who also works on the Team Up-supported Just Play program, delivered in partnership by Tonga Football Association, Football Australia and Oceania Football Confederation. The program is designed to communicate critical social and life-skill messages through the medium of football while promoting awareness around gender and disability inclusion and good hygiene habits.

From a young age, Tufui sparked an interest in football after witnessing her older sister playing the sport recreationally. In 2009 and at nine years of age, her interest for the sport elevated when she got involved in the Just Play program. Her natural talent and unyielding drive caught the attention of her community, and before she knew it, she was representing Tonga as a national youth football player.

“My love for football first began after being influenced to take up the sport by my older sister. Ironically, I began playing and learning football skills through the Just Play program in Tonga. Since then, I have gone on to represent my country both at regional and international levels."

"I believe the program really helped to build my confidence, something that has continued to propel me forward - both on and off the field.”

One of the most significant moments in Tufui’s journey came when she was selected to be a part of the Tongan women's national football side who competed at the OFC Women's Nations Cup last year – a qualifying round for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was a dream come true for the 23-year-old, and her dedication to training and her unwavering spirit shone brightly throughout the tournament.

“I am very proud of my teammates and what we have achieved in reaching the quarterfinals against Papua New Guinea. We may have missed out on qualifying for the World Cup, but we are grateful for the experiences that we have collectively gained. It is exciting to see the sport on the rise in the Pacific especially for women.”

As she continues to excel on the field, Tufui’s commitment to promoting the Just Play program is an opportunity she says to give back to her community, inspire young minds, and help shape the future of Tongan football.

“Apart from teaching football skills, the Just Play program promotes important social messages that are complimentary towards a child’s development. These critical messages include health and wellbeing, gender and disability inclusion, as well as building self-confidence."

"Through my role as a media officer, it is fulfilling to help write and share stories that highlight the impacts of the program, particularly in the lives of participants, volunteers and staff.”

According to the program manager for the Just Play program in Tonga, Palu Uhatahi Tu'amoheloa, Tufui is a pioneering role model of the Just Play program.

“MJ is one of our very first participants of the Just Play program when it was established in 2009. It’s been really inspiring to watch her develop and grow both as an individual and athlete. We are very excited about her achievements and how she has come full circle to give back to her community through the program and help inspire the next generation of football stars in Tonga. The impacts of Just Play are very visual, with children learning to kick their first football, forging friendships, embracing healthy habits and becoming confident, like MJ, in realising their full potential.”

Palu goes on to highlight that Tufui’s mother, Lupe Tufui, is a passionate volunteer of the program as well as six of her national teammates. 

“That is the power of football, and through the program we seek to empower girls and women involved in the sport whether it be on or off the pitch. We grow the game through participation and building a resilient and better community for Tonga.”

According to Lupe, the program contributed immensely to her daughter’s development and career path.

“Football is something that both my daughters have always enjoyed playing and often bonded over, especially when they were younger. Our family is very proud of Meleseini and what she has accomplished in representing the country. I have seen firsthand the benefits of the Just Play program, especially in giving her the confidence to break out of her shell, as she was often very shy.

This inspired me to get involved and help promote the program. I joined as a volunteer in 2018 and have since been assisting with delivering Just Play activities and festivals across several of our communities. I'm always hopeful and excited when seeing children especially young girls participating and excelling in the activities. They are our future and through the program we help them understand important life lessons and health practices that will be of value in every aspect of their lives.”

Meleseini was the captain of the Tongan national side at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina / Tonga Football Association


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