"It was a great honour and achievement to get that phone call" - Jared Clark
A few years ago, Croydon Kings defender Jared Clark didn't have Ni-Vanuatu citizenship. But in less than two weeks, he will represent Vanuatu in the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup Oceania qualifiers.
The 24-year-old centre-back has a unique opportunity to help his country of heritage qualify for Qatar's 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Clark is a South Australian local and has played for some of the state's most competitive clubs from a young age.
"I started my junior years at Western Strikers; from there, I went to Adelaide City," Clark said, speaking to Front Page Football recently.
"When I was 15, I moved to White City and then to Serbia for three years."
In 2017, Clark moved to Europe to train with Serbian club FK Vojvodina's youth side to get exposure to international club football at a young age.
"I had a Serbian coach I worked with from a young age," Clark said.
"He helped me out at White City. After one season with the U18s and Reserves, I asked him if there were any possibilities to go to Serbia, and he helped me move there.
"I went over there and trained for a local team for one year and played for the FK Vojvodina youth team for two years.
"I was staying with the coach's family, and their English wasn't the best, so I learned Serbian to help break the language barrier. At first, it was a bit of a culture shock, but I found my feet with the language and environment there.
"Overall, it was a great experience in Serbia. Football is taken very seriously there. Some of the players I trained with now play their football in Belgium, Denmark and represent Serbia at U21 level.
"The football was very technical and fast; however, it wasn't as physical as in Australia."
After his time in Serbia ended, Clark returned to South Australia and signed a contract with Adelaide United's NPL team.
"I knew Paul Pezos (the coach at the time) before I went to Serbia, and he helped me get into the youth team," Clark said.
"He's one of the best coaches I've had, and he gave me the opportunity to train with the first team full-time when Taylor Regan went overseas. I learned a lot from all the experienced players there."
In November 2019, Clark moved on from United and joined Croydon.
"At the time, Angelo Costanzo was the manager, and he was a big reason why I joined," Clark said.
"I thought [that] as a defender I could learn a lot from him. As for Croydon, I wanted to join a club that's family orientated.
"My teammates are very close and supportive, so I'm very happy to be at Croydon."
Clark is half Australian and half Ni-Vanuatu, but playing international football and representing Vanuatu wasn't something he focused on until approximately four years ago.
"International football wasn't something I actively pursued," Clark said.
"I got my Ni-Vanuatu citizenship within the past couple of years. It wasn't until dual citizenship was offered that I considered representing Vanuatu on the international stage.
"When I was at Adelaide United, Josh Smith (who also had connections to Vanuatu) was the assistant for the youth team. After one of my games, he was talking to my mum, asking where [I'm] from. Footage got sent over, and there was interest from the Vanuatu Football Federation."
In 2020, Clark was selected in the 54-man list for the Vanuatu national team as they prepared for the 2020 OFC Nations Cup in New Zealand. However, the tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19.
"I was upset because it was exciting to be part of that squad," Clark said.
"To also miss out on qualification towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was disappointing. It would have been good to give it a crack and try our best to qualify for the Olympics. But there are plenty of competitions available, and I'm eager to be a part of that."
A few weeks ago, Clark got the phone call from the VFF that he had been selected in their final squad for the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
"It was a great honour and achievement to get that phone call," Clark said.
"To be honest, it hasn't hit me yet as I haven't been able to go to Vanuatu or meet any of my teammates.
"A lot of family members didn't know that I had been selected in the Ni-Vanuatu squad. When the VFF announced the squad on national television, they were so excited; they didn't know how they were going to sleep.
"Since then, I've had messages from locals on my social media accounts wishing me and the team all the best, and that's something quite new for me."
Clark has studied his future Ni-Vanuatu teammates to prepare for the upcoming qualifiers despite not seeing them beforehand.
"I've seen and heard that our players are very fast," Clark said.
"We have a lot of quick players, of course. I haven't seen my teammates due to COVID-19, but there [are many] runs behind the lines, through balls, quick counter-attacking football.
"These guys train 5-6 times a week over in Vanuatu. There is a lot of tactical talk during these sessions, [and] they will be ready in terms of technical ability."
Vanuatu have never qualified for any FIFA World Cups, but Clark wants to create history for the Pacific Island nation.
In the upcoming qualifiers, Vanuatu faces the Solomon Islands, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands, with only two sides advancing to the next qualification stage.
"Tahiti have a strong squad," Clark said.
"I know four of their players play their club football for AS Pirae, who recently played in the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup. Those players will bring that international experience into the qualifiers.
"The Solomon Islands are also a good side. The Cook Islands got a bye in the preliminary round due to the tsunami in Tonga, with Tonga having to pull out. The Cook Islands will have that nothing to lose mentality, so we can't take them lightly."
Clark has visited Vanuatu several times and explains that their passion for football is strong and on the rise.
"I've lived in Australia all of my life and spent three years in Serbia. My family would go every two or three years to Vanuatu to visit the family during the school holiday break," Clark said.
"The passion is similar to South America, maybe Brazil, who are not [the] wealthiest countries but their love for football is massive.
"Football is big in Vanuatu. Random kids [are] playing on the street; everyone gets around a game.
"When the Ni-Vanuatu sides perform well in the Oceania club competitions, the whole country gets around them, everyone tunes around the TV, and fireworks are let off. It's a big party when any of the Ni-Vanuatu sides do well."
Vanuatu's FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign begins on the 18th of March against Tahiti at the Al Arabi Stadium in Doha, Qatar (Kick-off at 4am AEDT).
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