Bill Tuiloma still remembers the pain he felt on Nov. 15, 2017, all too well.
That morning he practically envisioned himself and the rest of the New Zealand Men’s National Team on a plane to Russia to compete in the 2018 FIFA World Cup come summer. The All-Whites held Peru to a scoreless draw in Wellington earlier that week and just needed to win in Lima to secure the World Cup’s final spot.
Hours later those dreams slipped away as Peru scored twice to slam the door shut on Tuiloma and his teammates. Since then, they’ve been fighting for another opportunity at the World Cup, a competition the country has only participated in twice (1982 & 2010).
Nearly five years later, Tuiloma and New Zealand find themselves back on the same stage: facing a “win-and-you’re-in” game for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, this time against Costa Rica on Tuesday (11am PT, FS2). As he prepared to head to Doha, Qatar, for the playoff game, Tuiloma couldn't help but think about what it has taken to reach this point again, how he has grown both on and off the field and what it would mean to him to represent his home country on the world stage.
“We all know what happened in the last qualifying campaign,” Tuiloma said. “In my head I just keep thinking about this World Cup chance; the fact it’s getting closer and closer makes me even more pumped and hungry to be there.”
When Tuiloma thinks about New Zealand, his mind immediately paints the picture of returning home to his parents’ place and going to a nearby beach with his family.
“The best moment is when I’m at the beach, we’re having a barbecue together and seeing all the smiling faces,” Tuiloma said. “Just being back home, it’s a very special place for me.”
Those memories have grown stronger each day since he last left the island, three years ago. Although he keeps in touch with family almost daily, whether by phone call or FaceTime, Tuiloma hasn’t been back since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even today, returning home means a 15-day quarantine.
Tuiloma suspected he would receive a call up to the national team for the game against Costa Rica – he scored a brace in New Zealand’s last World Cup qualifier game, a 5-0 win against the Solomon Islands, after all – and it became official when he received the call at home in Portland. The moment reminded him of his first call up, back when he turned 18 and signed his first contract with Marseille in France. Back then, the call was a bit more of a surprise.
“I remember thinking ‘The national team? Really? Right now?’ Tuiloma said. “I was all happy and excited and told my parents about it.”
Brought into the national team setup as a promising defensive midfielder as well as defender, Tuiloma has since added a new element to his game that he didn’t have back then: goal scoring.
After taking a moment to think about his four career international goals, not entirely difficult considering they have all come in just over a calendar year, he calls his first one – a free kick that deflected into the back of the net against Curacao in 2021 – the most memorable.
“My confidence is really high and strong, but I still have to keep my head down and stay humble to continue to work hard,” Tuiloma said. “I’m happy to be able to score these goals and help the team, but at the same time we’ve got to keep working hard.”
In April, down 2-0 against the LA Galaxy early in the second half, the Timbers needed a lifeline and received one from an unlikely source: their center back.
Standing over the ball 30 yards away from goal, Tuiloma stared right at Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond and took a short run-up before firing a perfectly curved ball up and over the LA wall and into the top corner of the net.
That goal, scored in early April, is one of Tuiloma’s team-leading five goals, a fact made even more unique given that he had scored just one goal in each of the previous four seasons. Then again, maybe it’s not as surprising considering his propensity to score off set piece opportunities, whether with his foot or head.
Still, the increasing consistency of goals as well as minutes is a sign of Tuiloma’s growth over several seasons in Portland. Someone who further speaks to that is his close friend and teammate, Larrys Mabiala. The two first bonded over their time and France and ability to speak the language and have since continued to grow close on and off the field.
“At the beginning he was the young guy trying to look after the other one and now he thinks he’s my equal,” Mabiala said with a chuckle.
The friends talk about everything, from where to invest money to Tuiloma’s call ups to New Zealand. When the Kiwi joined the national team this preseason, he and Mabiala – at the time recovering from a sports hernia surgery and thousands of miles away – still spent time talking with one another whether by text or on the phone.
“I know that he is very happy about this chance that he has to go play with New Zealand and have the chance to go to the World Cup,” Mabiala said.
The fact that things are beginning to come together for Tuiloma on the field doesn’t surprise Mabiala at all. He says his friend is good at everything he tries and that it was just a matter of time until everything clicked.
“[Tuiloma] loves playing golf and he explained that he just practiced the first swing and got the move,” Mabiala said. “I have been trying forever and I still cannot hit the golf ball. You watch him play basketball or volleyball and he is very good at it. He has the ability to catch up and be good at everything he is doing.”
To Mabiala, Tuiloma’s red-hot club form is a product of talent, but also confidence. He has seen it continue to grow each year behind the scenes and he couldn’t be any prouder of his friend.
“Once you have the confidence and start scoring one or two goals, it comes just like that,” Mabiala said. “I had the same kind of season in 2018 where I scored five goals. So, I know the feeling he has right now. It feels like everything you get in the box can be a goal, so I’m very happy for him.”
Ever since he turned 14, the age at which he started to believe he could play the sport professionally, Tuiloma dreamed of one day suiting up in a World Cup.
“Hopefully it’s this year,” Tuiloma said.
As Mabiala suggested, when Tuiloma joins up with the New Zealand national team and touches down in Doha, he will be doing so with more confidence than he has felt before – and he’s hungrier than ever to put the ball in the back of the net himself.
“I think the turnaround point for me is being more aggressive in the box and make the runs in order to get on the end of the ball,” Tuiloma said.
The All-Whites have a huge task ahead if it wants to snatch one of the final spots in next fall’s World Cup. It won the Oceania Football Confederation qualification tournament to book a spot in the inter-confederation playoff, but never faced an opponent the caliber of Costa Rica, which picked up 19 of its last 21 possible points in Concacaf World Cup Qualifying.
Tuiloma won’t allow himself to get too far ahead of himself, the sting of 2017’s 2-0 loss to Peru feels all too fresh, but with the Timbers’ next game coming on June 18, one thing’s for sure: several eyes in the Pacific Northwest will be on Tuiloma on June 14.
“Everyone is going to be watching us,” Tuiloma said. “It’s all eyes on these playoff games because there are only two more spots in the groups. I’m excited and I know everyone involved in the national time is excited, too.”