Can we stop teams like Micronesia from being embarrassed?

Currently, the men’s football tournament at the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea is attracting attention worldwide. This is unusual for a tournament that usually passes by without much of the world knowing anything about it.

For the first time, as New Zealand are participating, this tournament doubles up as a qualifying tournament for next summer’s Olympics. Because of this, the teams are made up of players under the age of 23.

But that’s not why there’s been attention on this tournament. The attention has been due to the misadventures of the team from the Federated States of Micronesia.

Micronesia started the tournament with a 30-0 loss against Tahiti. They followed that up two days later by losing 38-0 against Fiji, with Antonio Tuivuna having the distinction of scoring 10 goals from left-back, and unfortunately, things got even worse for them in their final match of the tournament, as they lost 46-0 against Vanuatu, with Vanuatu striker Jean Kaltack scoring 16 goals. Both Vanuatu’s score, and Kaltack’s individual goal tally would’ve been records, but as Micronesia aren’t in FIFA, and it was an u23’s game, it doesn’t look like it’ll count.

Jean Kaltack after scoring 16 goals

Jean Kaltack after scoring 16 goals

There’s been much laughing at the Micronesians here in England. Comments like ‘are they managed by (insert supposedly useless manager’s name here)?’ can be found after every single mention of Micronesia’s defeats.

Something makes me really uneasy about the ridicule being thrown Micronesia’s way. I think there should be some form of protection in place for teams like this, so they don’t get humiliated as they are starting out in international football.

There are a lot of mitigating circumstances behind Micronesia’s performances in the tournament. Micronesia have barely played international football in the past 12 years, and this was their first ever experience of an international tournament.

By contrast, Fiji’s team were made up of several of the players who played for them in the under-20 World Cup last month, where Fiji only failed to get out of the group stage on goal difference. Tahiti are normally one of the stronger Oceania countries and last month, Vanuatu won the Four Nations Friendship Cup, a warm-up tournament for the Pacific Games.

Micronesia aren’t just beginners in terms of international experience. Many of their players were beginners full stop. Micronesia could only assemble a squad of 18 players, compared to the 23 assembled by everyone else. Many of those players had only started playing football in the past 18 months. Many of them hadn’t played on a full-size pitch before.

At half-time against Fiji, Micronesia substituted goalkeeper Walter Pengelbrew. The backup keeper, Dominic Gadad, is really a midfielder, who only played in goal for the first time three weeks ago.

“It was boys against men” said the Micronesia coach, Stan Foster after the loss to Vanuatu.

It’s just so hard at this early stage –this is kindergarten for us,” he said. “We have to learn and to know that we go back we have to train harder and learn more skills.

“Most of these have never been out of their villages let alone on to another island. I took them to Guam the other day [and it was] the first time they’ve been on an elevator or an escalator. It’s been a huge step-up for these guys and they’ve just been overawed really.”

Fiji, Tahiti and Vanuatu aren’t what you would call international powerhouses in football, but for those countries, playing Micronesia is like Gennady Golovkin fighting a guy who’s only been to a boxing gym once.

Questions have been asked after the heavy defeats they suffered, about Micronesia’s suitability to play in this tournament in the first place, with Micronesia being compared to a pub team.

Well, Micronesia are worse than a pub team. Pub teams are full of players who have been playing football since they were small children and know how to play on a full-size pitch. Pub teams aren’t full of players who’ve only started playing less than two years ago and have never been on a proper pitch before.

Those who read my stuff will know that I believe that football is for everyone. It’s just as much for teams on the bottom end of the ability scale as it is for teams at the top.

Micronesia have a right to play international football. Micronesia are one of 9 sovereign nations not currently members of FIFA. To join FIFA, a country has to have been a member of a regional confederation for at least 2 years. Micronesia seem to be aiming at joining the East Asia Football Federation, but if they aren’t accepted, it’s unlikely they’ll improve as they don’t have sufficient funding.

While it’s unlikely that you’ll see any Micronesian players at the world’s best clubs anytime soon, football could make a huge difference to the people of Micronesia. The Oceania Football Confederation have programs in place to use football to improve health through exercise, combat drug/alcohol abuse, promote sexual health, provide incentives for children to stay in school as well as promoting cultural inclusion. Other nations similar to Micronesia have benefitted from participating in football, and there’s no reason why Micronesia shouldn’t too.

This is why I don’t think allowing a team like Micronesia to lose by such huge margins is acceptable. Micronesia has problems with obesity and diabetes, so football could be hugely beneficial to Micronesians.

If Micronesians, especially children, see their national team playing with pride and enjoying their football, chances are they’ll want to play too. If they see the team being humiliated, they won’t want to play.

Similarly, what if these results send out the message to the football authorities in Micronesia that they shouldn’t bother? I’m guessing that the Micronesian government doesn’t have a lot of money to invest in sport, so why would they want to concentrate resources on a sport where they lose heavily?

With the Pacific games tournament having a group phase; Fiji, Vanuatu and Tahiti can’t be blamed for running up the score, as goal difference could have been important in deciding who goes through, though Tahiti, somewhat needlessly, taunted the Micronesia team with a post-match haka.

Fiji’s coach, Juan Carlos Buzzetti felt uneasy about scoring so many, saying: “We feel very bad about having to do that, but we had no choice because Tahiti scored 30 and we play Tahiti in our next match”

As Micronesia aren’t a FIFA nation, and as such the game isn’t recognised by FIFA, then why not put some kind of mechanism in place to ensure that teams like Micronesia don’t get humiliated in the future? Why not say that the maximum recorded score in a game like that could be a 10 goal win?

It wouldn’t be a mercy rule, as the game would still go on for a full 90 minutes, but if you take away the incentive for the stronger team to run up the score, as every team would probably score 10, then they could win while leaving the other side a little dignity. What’s wrong with that?

Then, if a team like Micronesia gets accepted into FIFA, they have to accept any arse-kickings that come their way, though hopefully, acceptance into FIFA would mean they would receive funding, which would allow them to improve coaching and facilities, and therefore improve.

The positive for Micronesia that's come out of this tournament is that they’ve been invited to come back and compete in the next Pacific Games.

"I got the really good news yesterday that we will be allowed to come back and compete in the next Pacific Games. That was big relief for me, because I was really worried the organisers would take us out of the competition because of our scores," Stan Foster said.

"I've been assured that we'll be allowed to come back and that they're aware that this is a development squad. They're boys, not men. And they've been playing against well-seasoned men. I'm hoping the majority of our boys will be here for at least eight years."

That’s great news. But, why not help them, and other teams in the same position, out a bit in the next tournament?