The passing of a real friend of football: Martin Tofinga of Kiribati

Martin Tofinga was larger than life – in every sense of the term. That makes it so incredibly hard for those who were close to him to come to terms with the fact that he is no longer with us. Martin passed away suddenly at his home on Tuesday the 8th of August in the Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati. He will be sorely missed. Missed for his passion. Missed for his drive. Missed for his engaging laugh and humor and generosity.

Martin was instrumental in bringing The Ball to Kiribati. His friend, the well-known South African mountaineer Trevor Johnson, reached out to Martin in February this year and told him about The Ball. Martin’s reaction: We need to bring The Ball to Kiribati. And from this moment on and for the following several months Martin worked tirelessly to do just that.

He set-up a programme for The Ball’s visit, reached out to local and national governments and to local business as well as international agencies to financially support the programme he had designed. Indeed, as the days ticked away to the arrival of The Ball and with funding still missing, Martin himself, the former Minister of Environment in Kiribati and one time acting President of this remote nation, drove to businesses in Tarawa, knocking on doors and secured the funding.

And then The Ball arrived, thanks to support from the German Embassy of New Zealand. Martin was there to welcome The Ball and our team of two at the airport in Tarawa. But he was not alone. He had more than 15 people there form the KIFF and partner organizations and volunteers from the Just Play OFC programme. There was a banner welcoming The Ball – Football’s Olympic Torch – to Kiribati.

Our week in Kiribati was driven, literally, by Martin. He picked us up every morning. He dropped us off every evening. And he literally was our chauffeur the entire seven days – even showing the way as we traveled by boat to North Tarawa. Everywhere he went, he was met by friends. Doors opened for him. And he never stopped working. Dedicated to the cause. And for him the cause was not only supporting gender equality and climate action and sustainability as a whole in Kiribati through football, but his vision as the President of the Kiribati Islands Football Federation (KIFF), was for Kiribati to become a fully fledged member of FIFA.

Towards the end of The Ball’s visit in Kiribati, we were feasting on snapper and lobster and talking about future projects: Developing the women’s game in Kiribati, setting up educational climate action workshops for schools, using football to tackle climate challenges for Kiribati. All of us were eager to continue this work, and to meet again to talk about these projects, and chat about the beauty and challenges of life. We are deeply saddened that we will not be able to hear Martin’s joyful laugh again, and to watch the sunset on Kiribati’s beaches with him one more time. Thank you for all the work you have been doing, Martin, and for bringing joy to all those who met you. Thank you for being the 10,000th person to sign The Ball. We will do our best to continue your work in your name. You will be deeply missed. Rest in Power, Martin Tofinga, see you on the other side.

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