The meteoric rise of Guam

The meteoric rise of Guam

It is the smallest member of the Asian Football Confederation; just 165,000 inhabitants scattered across a tropical island in the north Pacific. Owing to the fact that it is indeed an American territory, like the relatively nearby Federated States of Micronesia – although the little island retains its traditional Chamorro culture – the influence of America is clear to see through the various U.S. military bases and the lurid malls that dot the island.

Considering that it is a territory of the U.S., it is therefore unsurprising to discover that some of Guam’s most popular sports comprise the likes of baseball, American football, basketball and softball. However, the Guamanian people retain a fractured passion for association football, albeit one that gained a significant boost in 2015.

The Guam national football team had been competing in the South Pacific Games and the Asian Cup before entering their maiden World Cup qualification campaign in 2000, but needless to say they were completely unprepared for what greeted them. A humiliating 19-0 defeat at the hands of AFC superpower Iran was subsequently followed by an embarrassing 16-0 loss to Tajikistan in a thoroughly disappointing campaign.

The situation did not improve for Guam’s footballers as they were entered for the Asian Football Confederation’s Challenge Cup – a competition effectively devised for the continent’s weakest sides – in 2006. Held in Bangladesh, the Matao were placed in Group C alongside Palestine, Cambodia and the hosts. After losing by margin of 11-0 against Palestine, Guam were beaten 3-0 by Bangladesh, before Cambodia defeated them by the same score-line. Guam left Bangladesh having attained no points in the three games, and possessing a rather sorry goal difference of -17.

Guam’s fate began to imitate that of its Australasian neighbours. In a corner of the world in which national teams are almost accustomed to losing by double figures, Guam’s future was looking dire.

In 2012, however, Guam were handed a lifeline through the arrival of new manager Gary White. Born in Southampton, White played for Bognor Regis Town and Freemantle City in Australia before becoming a manager. He brought with himself a wealth of experience; he had coached the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands national football teams, as well as working with Seattle Sounders.

White’s first competition with his new team was to be the East Asian Football Federation Cup (the EAFF are very much like the Caribbean Football Union in that their members are part of a larger regional federation). The tournament would comprise of two qualification rounds, before a final round-robin tournament would be played in 2013. Guam, entering in the first qualifying round, managed to top their group. Easy wins over neighbouring Northern Mariana Islands and Macau saw the Matao reach the second qualifying round with ease. Captain Jason Cunliffe finished as top scorer with four goals over the two matches.

Unfortunately for Guam, the quality on show in the second qualifying round was simply too much. In a group including Australia and North Korea, the team departed the tournament having finished rock bottom of the round robin. However, despite the disappointment inflicted by their ultimate defeat, Guam had won the first round with ease – a source of comfort and confidence for the fledgling national team.

Yet Guam’s biggest development came in 2015 after they overcame Turkmenistan on June 11 to claim their first ever victory in World Cup qualification – and on home soil too. The Matao faced their opponents on the new Guam FA pitch, funded by FIFA’s now-somewhat notorious Goal programme. It was a resounding win for a team deemed to be one of Asia’s weakest.

Another surprise was around the corner as Guam won another qualifier – this time against India, a country with a population in the billions. It was a 2-1 victory, comfortable by no means, but again, demonstrated how much Guam had developed.

Captain and all-time leading goal scorer Jason Cunliffe has been playing for the Matao since 2006. He has seen the team develop, thanks largely to FIFA’s money, and has long recognised the potential that his home island possess when it comes to football.

“I’ve always had high aspirations for our team and I’ve always believed, with the right coaching and the right template we would taste major success but to do it in World Cup qualifiers is amazing for sure,” he says, enthusiastically.

With 35 caps and 17 goals to his name, Cunliffe is one of Guam’s most experienced individuals. He has played for numerous Guamanian sides, and has played for Pachanga in the Philippines. One notable highlight of his career history is that he has also played football in the United States, a trend of sorts amongst the most promising of Guamanian youngsters.

“Having our players learn and ply their craft in the U.S. gives us a different look than what most teams in Asia are used to seeing. It helps the team develop, absolutely.”

One of Guam’s most famous and prestigious footballers is A.J DeLaGarza, an American-born Guamanian defender currently playing for LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer. Now 27, he had previously represented the USA senior team on two occasions, but only in a friendly capacity so remained eligible to play for Guam. He is now the highest-profile Guam footballer in history.

FIFA’s Goal project has been vital to Guam’s success. The Guam Football Association utilised funds allocated by the global governing body to build new facilities, and to develop its very own national football academy, which allows Guamanian youngsters the opportunity to flourish closer to home. This was not always the case, as Cunliffe recalls:

“I left Guam when I was 14 to pursue my football endeavours abroad because at that time there was no national academy and Guam Football Association didn’t have the resources they have now – I had little option.

“The GFA have really invested in youth football to ensure we have a strong foundation to grow from, Football is already our biggest youth sport and has been for some time now.”

Previously one of the world’s weakest national teams, the rise of the Matao is one that fellow Pacific islands will be looking to follow. The only real blot in Guam’s recent history is the disastrous 2002 World Cup qualification campaign, in which they conceded a total of 35 goals in just two matches. However Cunliffe argues the embarrassment is now irrelevant, and that Guam can now look to bigger and better things.

“While I knew members of that squad, none of them are on the team today and I myself didn’t come in to the fold until 2006. It’s a completely different team.”

Englishman Gary White, Guam’s manager, as well as Guam Football Association president, Richard Lai, deserve particular credit for the team’s turnaround according to Cunliffe. Rather amusingly, the Guam footballers, which typically use American slang, refer to their manager as the ‘Gaffer’, indicative of their British roots.

“The gaffer has done an outstanding job from day one. He has been an absolute revelation for our program across the board,” Cunliffe states. “He has had an amazing impact on everything that we have achieved.”

Despite his fragrant enthusiasm and excitement, Jason Cunliffe is all too wise to think that Guam can realistically reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia. “We aren’t naive enough to think that the job is done. We’ve got a good enough squad to make some noise and we plan to do just that.  We will take it one match at a time and see where that gets us.”

He does, however, have big hopes for Guamanian football, and believes that it can be the sport to capture the hearts of his fellow islanders. It is an exciting time for the Matao, and Cunliffe appreciates that what he and his teammates are doing will have an effect on countless generations to come. He believes that maintaining consistency is key to Guam’s future success.

“I hope that we can build from and sustain this success we are currently having. We may be a small island nation but we have been fighting colonialism for hundreds of years and we carry that fighting spirit with us in everything that we do.”

Cunliffe cites the Guam national rugby team – who recently beat China – and the island’s mixed martial arts athletes, when he talks of the Micronesians’ success. He strongly believes that it is possible for Guam to one day reach the bright lights of the World Cup, and to perform on the global stage.

Realistically it will be a long while before anything along these lines does occur, but Guam are making progress, and significant progress at that. They may only be a small island nation” but they have already stunned the world. With a prosperous football association backed by FIFA’s millions, the future holds remarkable potential for the Matao.

From losing 16-0 to Tajikistan to defeating the second most populous country in the world, Guam have made enormous strides. But, maintaining consistency is now the objective for Gary White’s men.

By Tomos Knox. Follow @TomosKnox

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