Annie Rose Gere’s love affair with football began in the most ordinary of settings: her home.

Growing up with a brother just two years her senior, the young Annie was always on the move, whether she was kicking a ball around the house or engaging in friendly sibling tussles.

These early experiences laid the foundation for a passion that would see her rise to notable heights in the world of football.

Last week, the 23-year-old received the prestigious Oceania Team Up Just Play award for her role as the Social Responsibility Officer for the Vanuatu Football Federation (VFF).

Reflecting on her journey, she remembers the streets of Chapuis 2 where she played “island” football with her brother and friends. It was there that her love for the ball truly flourished.

At just seven years old, Annie was introduced to Richard Leona, from VFF.

Leona’s introduction of the Just Play Program to Luganville marked a turning point for Annie.

The program, which encourages youth participation in football, allowed her to engage with the sport on a deeper level. Playing alongside boys in the program, she developed a keen understanding of the game’s demands and the commitment required to succeed.

Football, as Annie knows well, is a team sport that demands mental fortitude and a winner’s mindset.

This realization came early in her career when she joined the national team at just 14 years old. Representing Vanuatu in the U17 team in the Cook Islands in 2015, Gere began a journey that would see her don the national colors at various tournaments across the region.

In 2017, while Vanuatu won gold at the Pacific Mini Games in Port Vila, Annie faced the challenge of balancing sports and education. She missed the games due to her exams in Luganville, Santo.

However, her resolve remained unshaken.

In 2018, she played in the OFC Women’s Nations Cup in Fiji, and in 2019, she participated in the same tournament in Samoa. That year, she also turned 18 and competed in the U19 tournament in the Cook Islands, where her team reached the semi-finals and claimed fourth place.

It was during this time that she met Coach Robert Yalou, a key figure in her development with the women’s and Ifira Black Bird teams.

Annie’s reflections on a recent trip to the Solomon Islands reveal the emotional and psychological demands of football.

“You play mentally and physically, but then you realize it’s teamwork,” she said. “Realizing that some teammates do not participate fully can be emotionally disturbing, leading to moments of shared tears.”

Her pride in representing her nation is palpable.

Describing her best moments, she said, “Every time I stand on the pitch and hear the national anthem, it brings me joy and emotion. I am proud to be a Ni-Vanuatu born citizen.” Playing for her family and country, Annie always strives to deliver her best performance and character.

Her experience in the OFC Women’s Champions League under Coach Robert Calvo with team Tafea was a significant milestone.

“Working as a team, we reached the semi-finals and held off a strong New Zealand team until full time,” she recounted.

Despite a narrow 2-1 loss in extended time due to exhaustion and a defensive blunder, the team’s spirit remained unbroken.

They returned home with four awards, including three match players and one player of the tournament, achieved by Jane Alatoa.

Football has given Annie more than just accolades; it has provided her with a livelihood. Initially joining the VFF Social Responsibility team as a volunteer, she now works as the Social Responsibility Media Officer and Port Vila Just Play Programme Coordinator.

“Football has given me a second chance to find a job and support my family financially,” she shared.

She expressed profound gratitude towards Coach Yalou, who has been a mentor and like a big brother since the beginning.

His football career and mentorship have been inspirational for many, including Gere. She also acknowledged Calvo’s impact on the Tafea team, praising his winning mentality.

Annie’s aspirations extend beyond personal success. She hopes to see more girls participate in football without fear of boundaries and always to put God first. “Work hard, be committed, and trust God,” she concluded, drawing inspiration from her idol, Cristiano Ronaldo, who rose from humble beginnings to become a global sports icon.

Annie’s story is a testament to passion, perseverance, and the transformative power of sport. From backyard games to international recognition, her journey continues to inspire and pave the way for future generations of female footballers in Vanuatu.