While eating dinner with my girlfriend’s colleagues a question occurred to me. ‘Does anybody know where Guam is?’ I announced, cutting her boss off mid budget report. With confused looks – and bachelor life becoming a rapidly increasing possibility – I asked again. No one knew.
Guam, of course, is an island in the Western Pacific Ocean, and is actually a territory of the United States. Despite this the country still has a FIFA affiliated national football team, who draw on a population of just over 165,000. The rather isolated country is around five hours flight from Australia, and three from Japan.
Their national team compete as part of the Asia Football Confederation (AFC), and have been around since 1975. They became FIFA members in 1996, and have not looked back since, with improvements in facilities, infrastructure and now results. Since 2002 the side have even entered world cup qualifying, although it took them until 2009 to record their first international win.
But you knew all that already.
With the conversation at the table returning to business my interjection was soon forgotten, but it remained in my mind. How do people in Guam see themselves I wondered? The
nation was occupied by Japan during the Second World War, and has the giant talon of America resting on its shoulder. Does the national team provide a sense of identity?
With that in mind, and fuelled with a sense of determination – and possibly alcohol – I took to Twitter and found Jason Cunliffe. Jason is the most experienced member of the Guam national team, having been involved since 1988. Jason’s father was even the General Secretary of the Guam Football Association in 1996, and is now head of the Asian Football Confederation’s Appeals Committee.
‘I think its okay to take a breath and appreciate the work that has been put in’
We ended up chatting about Guam and the potential he believes it to possess. Jason told me he had seen the best and worst times in Guam football, but could see a bright future for the team.
He said: “Being a part of this growth in football from its infancy stages has been quite a journey. From the obvious growing pains of losing matches regularly, and by large margins, to now competing and winning games many think we shouldn’t be winning; it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.
“Guam football has come a long way, and while there is much that still must be done, I think its okay to take a breath and appreciate the work that has been put in; for such a tiny nation, we’ve been able to achieve a lot. Our facilities are improving regularly and have been [high] quality for some time, and now our football is starting to match that growth which makes being involved a lot of fun.
“The future is bright as long as we keep on the same path. It’s definitely not easy as our budget is pennies compared to bigger nations but we are finding ways to compete nonetheless.”
The lack of a budget is an interesting point. In March it was announced that Sport England would be cutting their funding for the English Football Association by £1.6 million. The move came as a response to the sharp decline in people taking part in the amateur game.
It was suggested that the FA needed to overhaul their grassroots engagement strategy, but the amount is a drop in the ocean compared to the annual £43 million allocated to this area, and their overall turnover, which was at £300 million in 2012.
In Guam the financial restrictions have made the confederation and manager, Englishman Gary White, think outside of the box when it comes to improving the football infrastructure.
Jason added: “The Gaffer, along with our President Richard Lai and the executive committee, has done a tremendous job of growing the game in just these last two years. The Gaffer has not only brought his football acumen, but he’s also been able to get the community more involved by meeting with the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Clubs and the likes, in order to show them what the program is all about.
“There is a reason why he’s getting so much attention in the world press and he’s absolutely earned it. The Gaffer has really changed football in Guam for the better, and we need to ensure that we continue forward when his time here is through. As the elder statesman on the team I’m the only one who has really seen the changes we’ve made since day one, and it’s incredible.”
The subject of community engagement seems to be a recurring theme which I have encountered often as I research articles on the lesser known elements of global football for Road to Russia.
When looking at a grass-roots team in Liberia recently, I saw that the side had engaged the community by teaching the players core principles. These included codes of conduct on and off the pitch which included a commitment to training and doing housework. If any of these were broken you simply couldn’t be in the team.
At the other end of the scale I found Liechtenstein and their battle to make the national team a part of the country. I read Charlie Connelly’s excellent book Stamping Grounds – which is possibly where my previous need for a drink came from – and looked at doing a follow up in the country.
The book highlighted problems of engaging fans when the population were so successful in their careers, and the team were so poor on the pitch. I spoke to Roland Ospelt, General Secretary of the Liechtenstein Football Association, about this very subject.
He said: “FC Vaduz has some fan clubs, and there is also an official fan club of the National team. You have of course to put the numbers of members of the fan clubs in relation to the population in Liechtenstein, which is 36’000. The fan club Ländleblock of the national team has about 30 members; the fan club of FC Vaduz is above 50.
“We had, some years ago, more players playing abroad, but in this season FC Vaduz are playing again in [the] top league of Switzerland and we have, at the moment, six professional players in the squad of FC Vaduz, and two players in Turkey, and one goalkeeper in England with AFC Bournemouth.”
FC Vaduz is the biggest club side in Liechtenstein and yet if you look at their squad it is made up in the majority by Swiss nationals, with some Germans as well. Having so many (mf) foreigners is nothing new in football of course, but for the bigger leagues not the smaller nations. Roland certainly has a point about the relative population numbers, but the national team will surely always struggle to attract fans if there are so few local heroes they can connect with.
‘the top kids get extra work in with the Gaffer himself’
If we return to Guam the development of a youth structure is one Jason is enthusiastic about. This is surely where community engagement must begin, with the youngest members it has. He was involved in some of the initial Guam youth teams but has again seen the benefit of the changes.
He said: “We’ve always participated in AFC tournaments but mainly just in the U16 and U19 competitions and not as often as we’d like. Since the Gaffer has been here, our program has grown tremendously across the board. He’s since implemented a national academy where kids come in and train at our headquarters three to five days a week at under eight, under 10 and under 12 age groups. They study for an hour or so before heading out to train. Even within the academy there is a Project Elite, where the top kids get extra work in with the Gaffer himself.”
Like fellow AFC members Australia, the Guam national football team decided to move to the confederation after previously being members of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). This gave the side access to a higher and more competitive standard of football.
Jason added: “I believe my father and the others knew that in order to grow the game we had to take the necessary steps, and I believe being a FIFA member was the first step in that. They also had the foresight to move from Oceania to AFC, as it would allow us greater opportunities to play and learn.
“No doubt there have been some growing pains but I think if you look at our recent results, an island with a population of 176,000 is beating countries with millions and we are not done yet. The process was time consuming but collectively, those in charge of the GFA (Guam Football Association) at the time did such a tremendous job in getting us moving in the right direction.
“We’ve since established good relations with some bigger countries like Japan and South Korea which has helped us improve both on the pitch and administratively.”
So what lies ahead for the experienced Captain of Guam? After seeing so much change and so many improvements, I asked Jason how long he saw himself playing for:
“Personally I hope to play as long as I can. Football has afforded me many amazing opportunities and I’m grateful for every one of them. I’m 31 in October which many would say is beginning on the downward side of a football career, but I feel I still haven’t reached my peak yet so it keeps me motivated.
“I’ve never really gotten a fair look on a decent professional team so I’m hoping after we win in November someone will take a chance on me. If it happens, I’d make the best of it. If it doesn’t, I’m okay with that too. I’ll continue to help the game grow here at home as much as possible. Coaching is the obvious evolution of that, and one day I hope to be contributing in that regard, but until then I’ll give it my all on the pitch.”
I started this article in quite a light-hearted way, but Guam is certainly no joke. The changes that have been brought in are now yielding success on the pitch, and with experienced heads such as Jason and manager Gary, they have the right people to ensure the long-term success of the national team.
The next time you are sat around the dinner table ask again if anyone knows where Guam is. The answer may just surprise you.