I meant to write this last week but as a Liverpool fan, the whole Liverpool takeover saga was uppermost in my mind, so I pretty much forgot about this story. It’s a good one too. With a lot of talk about the on and off-pitch troubles for many teams in the past few weeks, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that for some teams, just getting the opportunity to play is a victory in itself, and one small win may make a big difference to a nation.
To those who do not know, and this included me until a week ago; the island group of Pohnpei is the largest of the Federated States of Micronesia. Unsurprisingly, Micronesia isn’t exactly renowned for football, with the national team having effectively disbanded after some heavy, demoralising defeats.
Despite not actually being a national team, The Pohnpei team were somewhat cruelly regarded as the ‘worst team in the world’ sitting at the bottom of the RoonBa rankings, which deals with non-federated teams below FIFA’s radar. Indeed, the team had never won a game before.
But that’s all in the past. Recently, on a tour of Guam, the Pohnpei team recorded their first ever win, 7-1 against BGMSL (Guam’s league) Division 2 side Crushers. Whilst a team from the second tier of the Guam league system may not be the most illustrious of opposition, everyone’s got to start somewhere and a win is a win. The final whistle saw a pitch invasion by the travelling Pohnpei fans, all 24 of them, who rushed onto the field. Manager Paul Watson praised his side saying, "It's just amazing how hard these lads have worked, we have put them through 5am sessions before work, not to mention the hours spent on our waterlogged pitch."
Pohnpei followed this win with a narrow defeat to the splendidly named Carpet Masters, a BGMSL Division 1 team and a 3-0 defeat to the Guam Under-18 national team, though the game only lasted 70 minutes due to floodlight failure. This is a vast improvement on the previous meeting, which ended in a 16-1 Guam win and it isn’t too bad considering it was their third game in three days.
Pohnpei’s state team was relaunched in 2009, with Englishmen Paul Watson, a journalist and filmmaker Matthew Conrad taking over the reins as coaches, after finding out about the island whilst researching a documentary.
Luckily, they found a former head of the Pohnpei FA living in London, Charles Musana, who was able to give them advice on where to find talented players, but warned that football on the island was “recreational and non-competitive”.
It wasn’t plain sailing by any means though for Watson and Conrad. For starters, getting from the UK to Pohnpei is not easy, taking about 25 hours and involving 4 flights. Then there is the weather; Pohnpei is one of the wettest places the planet, getting about 300 inches of rain a year, making finding a suitable pitch difficult. Also, the island has an obesity problem, with 90% of the population obese and 30% diabetic. This is something the Pohnpei authorities are desperate to change and thanks in part to the football team; it looks like the number of people participating in sport or in other exercise is increasing.
Coach Matthew Conrad said: “The Pohnpei government and health officials are desperately trying to promote physical conditioning and a healthy diet and we hope football, as an aerobic sport, will promote a nationwide healthy living campaign. The local Olympic committee has shown a lot more support since hearing about the Guam trip and is even helping us with grant applications for the US and Australia to secure the future of football in the state. They have even donated two lawnmowers to spruce up the playing pitch we use for training!”
Watson said “We ran training sessions and between 13 and 25 people turned up for the sessions depending on the weather. Some people walked 5km (3.1 miles) each way from their homes everyday in driving rain with no shoes”
"We took lots of boots with us but none of them wanted to wear them, as they are used to playing without." Mr Conrad said: "They are a really tough bunch of people. The kids have no fear and you find the smallest child tackling the largest players, they are like little Hercules."
The next big step is to try and re-establish a Micronesia national team and get accepted into the East Asian football federation, enabling Micronesia to compete in FIFA competitions. The neighbouring state of Yap has a team that are in the NF-Board, the organisation for teams not recognised by FIFA.
The problem is money. The distances betweens islands in Micronesia are vast and flights are expensive, too expensive for the team to presently afford. The recent efforts of the Pohnpei team have only been made possible by private sponsorship from a UK airline, Coyne Airways. Paul Watson’s brother, Mark, is a fairly well-known comedian in the UK so he has been able to utilise his media contacts, as well as his own, to promote the team and raise some money in order to buy boots and protective gear. Some English league clubs have donated kit as well.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much help from FIFA. Watson says “FIFA have given us no help whatsoever over the last 12 months, even though we are doing everything we are supposed to do. We are developing grass roots football throughout Micronesia and trying our best to build the foundations for a new generation of footballers in a country with a 90 percent obesity rate and football’s authorities won’t even dignify us with an email, let alone development funding.
The sad truth is that unless you’re a millionaire businessman, FIFA want nothing to do with you.”
There seems to be a catch-22 situation for teams like Pohnpei. Whilst financial aid is available to FIFA members, until Micronesia can show that they are capable of beating FIFA members, they won’t get any money. Without money for coaching (Watson and Conrad are working for free) and overseas travel, the team won’t be able to show that they can beat a FIFA member.
Whilst it may only be a baby step, hopefully Pohnpei and Micronesian football in general can build on this and Micronesia can both be reintegrated into the football community and receive the funding to build the game there. Good luck to them.