Widespread drug abuse, toad-infested football pitches and almost non-existent funding. The conditions outlined above might not be considered the most suitable for starting a national football team with aspirations of joining FIFA – the recognised authority on the global game – but they are exactly what two football fans, Paul Watson and his friend Matt Conrad, inherited back in 2007.
That’s because over 10 years ago, the two Englishmen travelled to the obscure Pohnpei State to try and become international footballers for a team that had regularly lost games by dozens of goals.
The pair’s initial idea was to become naturalised citizens on the tiny North Pacific island which is a member of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) alongside the regions of Chuuk, Yap and Kosrae, situated about 2,000 kilometres off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
After that, they would aim to become squad members, earn an international cap and realise a long-held schoolboy dream of becoming footballers on a global stage – something they could boast about to their mates in the local pub. It was to be the anecdote to end all anecdotes.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I scored a goal against Guam in an Asian Cup qualifier?” might well have become one of the most curious recurring conversation-starters ever overheard had plans gone their way. However, after leaving families, girlfriends and careers behind them in England to travel halfway across the globe in pursuit of a madcap dream, they quickly realised that their objective would not be as easily accomplished as they had first hoped.
As with all the best stories, however, the reality that emerged needed little embellishment because events transpired into something much more interesting along the way. Bureaucracy hindered their intentions to become genuine Pohnpeians and after discovering that football facilities and funding were both in a bad state – as well as coming to the realisation that they would have an easier time displacing Wayne Rooney on the England team-sheet than they would of representing Pohnpei in a FIFA-recognised match – they opted instead to become coaches, despite having never coached a team in their lives.
Watson’s book Up Pohnpei tells their story from planning their initial arrival right up to Pohnpei’s first-ever victory against any opposition in 2010. It’s a charming account of how two foreigners managed to haul the tiny island out of the doldrums and direct them towards something resembling progress by trying to become an internationally-recognised national side.
“When I look back on my time in Pohnpei, the win over Crushers FC in Guam was an obvious highlight. Seeing our players running around the pitch, tears in their eyes flying the flag was an incredible experience,” Watson told me in July when I asked him what his proudest achievement with Pohnpei has been. “Long before that I can remember working with Dilshan Senarathgoda, our captain and an inspiration for football in Pohnpei, to set up the first league in Pohnpei, and that feeling after our first league match when players from across the island had turned up – on time – and enjoyed their first taste of organised match football was electric.”
Watson certainly has plenty of fond memories of his time as coach of Pohnpei and it is little wonder he has singled out the 7-1 victory over Crushers as a milestone moment because it showed what the team were capable of producing on the pitch. However, five years after the publication of Watson’s book and on the brink of the release of an upcoming behind-the-scenes documentary called the Soccermen about the culture of football on the island, Pohnpei still faces a plethora of major problems and challenges. Watson remains heavily involved in the ongoing Pohnpei story, but he has also moved on to new ventures in the football world. After all, Watson is only now free of personal debt having invested thousands of pounds sterling into building and improving the Pohnpei Soccer Association (PSA).
“I spent more money than I had that’s for sure and I only paid off the debts I ran up last year, so it took me a good five or six years. I didn’t have the chance to build any savings as my job wasn’t well paid before Pohnpei and I’d never had any money in my account except [an] overdraft, so I just had to keep borrowing from friends and family. By the end it was around £9,000 of debt. It was a pretty naive thing to do but I just wanted to get things to a point where they would continue when I left and it kept needing more and more work to get there – anything less than those 18 months and I reckon it’d have faded into a gap year-style vanity project, which was exactly what I wanted to avoid,” Watson elaborated.
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That was always going to be a challenge – building something sustainable. Having unselfishly laid the foundations, Watson and Conrad knew they would need to eventually draft in some professional coaches because although they had done a lot in their year-and-a-half in Pohnpei (managing them to their first victory over a club on Guamanian soil, starting their own Pohnpei Premier League as well as throwing lots of money at the cause) there were always going to be challenges they couldn’t overcome without expert assistance.
Again, though, they knew that recruiting professionals would cost money, a reality they have been forced to confront time and again over the years, whether that has been as coaches or figures behind the scenes networking and promoting.
Pumping money into Pohnpei has not been easy for a team on the fringes of the global soccer scene, but Watson and others have been incredibly innovative with their ideas and means of fundraising.
Recently, they started an online Go Fund Me campaign that attracted almost 20 donors and reached the £750 mark. Plus, since the start of the year, Watson tells me that they have also been selling official team shirts at £30 a pop, shipping them out from the former manager’s own garage to a variety of global destinations in order to generate the vital income needed to pay for coaches, day-to-day expenses and travel. They are both modest financial achievements, sure, but it’s equally true that they are ones which have nevertheless managed to keep Pohnpei’s soccer dream on life-support over the years.
“Football’s not that different to the rest of the world. There are people who have incredible wealth and those who have nothing and for those with nothing, getting to those with wealth is pretty much impossible,” Watson told me. “Pretty much everyone who has supported Pohnpeian football by donating or buying a shirt isn’t rich, they are just everyday football fans. The oligarchs of this world are beyond our methods of communications and probably wouldn’t be excited by the underdog story anyway.
“As a result, Pohnpeian football has always been, and remains, funded by £30 here and there, not big amounts. The only larger sums come from the excellent work of the Olympic Committee and the Australian and Japanese Embassies on Pohnpei who have given grants for equipment.
“That’s why it was incredible when cargo airline Coyne Airways sponsored the team’s trip to Guam [in 2010] just for the love of the game. We’d sent endless emails to big companies and never even had a response and suddenly we had tickets booked on a tour that would change the lives of our players. I’ll never forget that generosity and I’m sure our players won’t either,” Watson added.
Going by rough estimations from Watson, the monies raised by the Olympic Committee and both embassies over the last seven or eight years is somewhere in the region of £10,000 – substantial injections of cash which have enabled progress to slowly continue on the island. Although those donations have been hugely beneficial, and are appreciated by Watson and the PSA, it works out at an average of a little over £1,000 per year and it also highlights just how vital securing FIFA money will be to the future of the team.
Undoubtedly the biggest obstacle in Pohnpei’s way towards getting accepted into FIFA, where generous funding, support and expert direction are all readily available, is the fact that they are essentially disconnected from the rest of the Micronesian islands.
Becoming a member of FIFA is like joining an exclusive club – it’s difficult to get kicked out but it’s also not easy to gain entry. Because Pohnpei are a burgeoning football association, they are looking to become eligible for the basic pay-out every member gets. According to a FIFA.com 2014 media release on their own official website, they offer a sizable sum of USD$250,000 per member association for annual development, and that’s the big incentive. If they were eligible for that sort of funding, it would greatly improve Pohnpei’s standing and it would open up so many more possibilities to them.
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Although developing football in Pohnpei has always been a passion for Watson and his successors, the end-goal has always been to try and unite FSM under one recognisable team. Although a mock Micronesian side did exist around the turn of the millennium and played matches, the team were out of their depth and lasted only a short and unflattering time on the Pacific circuit. According to RSSSF.com, between 1999 and 2003 the team conceded a combined total of 59 goals in seven matches and won only one match, a 7-0 victory over Northern Marianas in the 1999 Micronesia Cup. Since then, politics and close-mindedness have each hindered the push to bring an official, and fairly represented, FSM team together once again in order to qualify for FIFA funding.
To figure out why this is the case, we have to go back as far as 2010 when, as Watson told me, an FSM Football Association (FSM FA) was set up and an application to the East Asian Football Confederation was submitted as the first official step towards joining FIFA – it’s necessary for a team to join a nearby Cconfederation before being considered. However, as Watson told me, delays hampered their hopes as planned visits to the island by official delegates were cancelled on three separate occasions and communication was very sparse and hollow. Overall, FIFA offered little in the way of helpful information to FSM FA authorities and so no advances were made in the process towards acceptance at the time.
Seven years on, and the FSM FA are still waiting to get accepted after they were eventually visited and meetings took place. As recently as the summer of 2017, as Watson himself told me, the FSM FA “were told in an email simply that they’d have to start again due to ‘time lapse issues’. Nobody knows what that means.”
Frustration would be understandable, anger perhaps more so, at the apparent opposition and unhelpfulness the FSM FA are being met with on a regular basis. Still, Watson is confident that by joining the neighbouring Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) as a united FSM first, instead of the East Asian Football Confederation as initially planned, the pathway into FIFA will eventually become less cluttered with stumbling blocks and the day will arrive where FIFA funding will become visible on Pohnpei as well as on Chuuk, Yap and Kosrae.
Oceania is arguably much less competitive than Asia, so entry would understandably be easier to pull off. Moreover, it could offer Pohnpeians and their fellow Micronesians an easier route to success in the long run and enable them to hold their own against teams not too many levels ahead of them. New Zealand and the Solomon Islands are the strongest teams in the region, but with a few years of planning an FSM team could, in the future, compete on par with them. Plus, although this is a stretch for even the most optimistic of fans right now, with the World Cup finals expanding to 48 teams and the path in from Oceania becoming wider as a result, it might not be totally unrealistic for fans to dream of seeing a Micronesian team represented on the biggest stage of them all beyond 2030, or at least of competing regularly in qualification phases like Guam have done if they get accepted.
“I think it’s starting to look like Micronesia is best off looking to Oceania rather than Asia. I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t get into OFC within the next year or two, but it’ll all depend on the people inside the organisation. Guam has done well, but it’s a slightly different situation as it’s part of the US and benefits hugely from that, plus Guam has many big companies active on the island so there’s a commercial interest there for FIFA whereas there simply isn’t in the Federated States of Micronesia. That shouldn’t make a difference, but it does. On a football level, there’s no reason why Micronesia can’t follow in Guam’s footsteps – the talent is there and so is the desire,” Watson added.
Neighbouring Guam is one of modern international football’s most endearing success stories. A few years ago, the Guamanians were regularly losing games by very large margins against similarly-sized nations around them, but are now a competitive opponent, even winning games and playing good football. A combination of luck, their connection with the USA, available funding through FIFA membership plus clever use of said finances through experienced appointments like former manager Gary White, have all allowed Guam to flourish and grow into an example held aloft by football aficionados all over, especially figures in the Pohnpeian soccer community.
If Pohnpei and the rest of the FSM are to ultimately approach Guam’s level it will be partly because of the community’s consistent donors who believe in joining FIFA as the optimum means of progress. After all, it is efforts like their Go Fund Me campaign which have enabled the hiring of experienced coaches to maximize and tease out the Pohnpeians’ abilities – coaches like 30-year-old Englishman Chris Smith who took time out to fill me in on a few things this summer.
In the first half of 2017, Smith spent several months on the tiny Pacific island attempting to transform the culture of football into something with a greater structure and more defined identity than ever before. Although he wrapped up his coaching duties in late July to become director of football at Vietnam’s Hanoi Sports Academy, he remains involved as the PSA’s Technical Director.
By targeting schools, introducing the space-conscious futsal and working with a local governor to acquire essential equipment like footballs, Smith has already achieved a great deal in his time there, and he’s only eight months into his role. Because while the FSM FA have been waiting for emails to be responded to and logistical tedium to get sorted out, the PSA have been actively doing all they can to raise football’s profile.
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When most modern football fans think of coaches, they think of the glamour associated with José Mourinho, Diego Simeone or Pep Guardiola – aloof characters who captivate at flashy press conferences in designer suits and get paid exorbitant amounts of money for their reputation and experience. Smith, though, brings coaching back to its fundamental values. After all, he has coached all around the world and he hasn’t been focused on personal gain wherever he has gone – his voluntary stint in Vietnam with ‘5gio Sang’, coaching disadvantaged kids, attests to this. Plus, despite a successful career that has seen him work for some very well-respected professional clubs, he remains a humble figure focused on giving back.
“I managed to raise around £600 from donations by friends, family and people online who believe in the project. Paul donated the rest of my flight costs from money raised by shirt sales,” Smith told me a few weeks before leaving for Vietnam. When I arrived in Pohnpei, Steve Finnen [a local lawyer] managed to find me free accommodation in the home of a couple who were off island all summer and also lent me his car for my time there which was initially filled with gas by Jim Tobin from the FSM Olympic Committee – true teamwork.”
Smith tells me that he couldn’t have flown all the way out to the Pacific without the backing of those who believed in the project, without some of his own savings or without the help of his own mum. “The rest of my living costs was money saved from five months of working two full-time jobs and living with my mum. A lot of people sacrificed their time, money and effort to help me, so it’s only fair I sacrifice a bit to help myself.”
What stands out here, apart from Smith’s industry, is the sense of togetherness on the island – a lot of the work being done is by expatriates on Pohnpei and the FSM, but it all unselfishly led to Smith being able to make a difference by bringing to life the community-centric plan that Watson and Conrad had set in motion. It has also seen Smith gain useful insight that he is hoping to pass on to the next incoming coach. “I realised pretty early on that developing soccer in Pohnpei needed bigger questions answering than ‘how do we improve our team?’” Smith said.
“As Technical Director, I can ask bigger questions like: How do we help young people first experience soccer? Why do our players play and how can we support this? What are our links with schools and government? What is our identity and what are our overall goals? And finally, how does this all tie together into something bigger and easier to understand? On a normal day, I could be meeting with someone in sports, education or government, visiting a school, providing after-school or summer sessions for youths, running training for adults or writing any resources needed. Many other things too, it changes every day,” Smith told me.
Providing a scattergun approach to his multi-dimensional role, Chris tells me that he tried to target as many different aspects as possible upon first arriving. It may not have been the ideal method, but the Nottinghamshire native certainly attempted to make the most of his time and was well aware that ideal circumstances were never something he could expect on such a uniquely kitsch island, especially with toad-infested pitches – something the coaches have been dealing with for the past 10 years and more.
“I’m sure the toads would feel a human-free pitch is the aim,” Smith said when I asked him about the infamous PICS field that for many years was the only space they could play on despite the fact it was often covered in mating toads. I believe that right at the start of Up Pohnpei, Ryan Johnson – who I’ve not met but has been very helpful online – tells Paul [Watson] that the toads lived there first, and it’s the footballers that are invading. Anyway, you would be amazed how well a football match and toads can co-exist, or how quickly you forget. I’ve yet to see one squashed by a player but I’m sure it happens all the time, although I especially fear for the guys playing in bare feet,” Smith said.
Improvement can be seen in a variety of ways when an island is going through a reimagining of its soccer infrastructure and ideology, whether that is through percentages, ratios or the number of zeroes on a funding cheque. But Smith has found a way of measuring progress that is surely unique to the State of Pohnpei. “To be honest, if toads are getting squashed it means that it’s been raining yet enough players have turned up for a match. Therefore, the more squashed toads, the better state Pohnpeian football is in. It’s probably the best metric we have,” Smith revealed.
Although Smith is unperturbed by the dearth of regular pitches, he has seen futsal as a way to maximize space but also as a means of player development in an altered guise. With only two 11-a-side pitches available (one of which is official FIFA-sized, the other toad-conquered), Smith has been forced to look at indoor and outdoor basketball courts to facilitate training matches, coaching drills and underage sessions.
In many ways, basketball has been both a friend and enemy of the PSA. As one of the State’s most participated-in sports, it can often act as a talent and interest drain from soccer’s perspective – pulling players away to play hoops means that fewer participants are available to play soccer. On an island with a small population of approximately 35,000, the presence of a far more popular sport surely reduces the talent pool for the likes of Smith to draw upon.
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On Pohnpei, basketball is a far more recognised sport than soccer. It’s more engaged with, it has better backing and it has been around for a lot longer. Watson told me that it’s “an older, more established sport in Micronesia due to the American influence” so it’s clear that it has had a much easier time of winning over the locals.
For example, a recent Go Fund Me campaign set up by Jaci Allison to source money for Pohnpei’s Seventh Day Adventism school basketball varsity trip to Walla Walla in Washington, USA saw them raise $57,700 in less than 18 months so that 28 students and five sponsors could attend and participate in the competition. Contrast that with the PSA’s similar funding campaign of just less than £1,000, and the story of soccer’s challenge becomes a little clearer. Evidently, soccer is far less revered than basketball and that means it will always be more difficult for the likes of Smith and Watson to garner interest and source money – at least until preconceptions are challenged enough to set soccer up as not simply another alternative, but an equally appealing one that excites and thrills.
Indeed, unlike football, basketball has managed to unite the Federated States of Micronesia into an official, internationally-recognised team that has been supported by FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) since 1986. They are not a global superpower on the sport’s circuit – their men’s team are currently ranked 133rd in the world – but they do at least exist and have a lot of fans who are willing to lend their support. Watson tells me he’s not sure if that’s because FIBA are easier to deal with than FIFA or because of something else.
However, what seems clear is that basketball’s longer traditions on the island have probably fostered improved interconnectivity and togetherness between each Micronesian State over time. Whatever the precise reason for the difference, it’s obvious that football sits in basketball’s shadow and is often considered an outsider sport.
From conversing with Smith, I get the impression that he chose to view basketball’s success not as a challenge to be overcome for the sake of it, but as an elevated object to be used to vault themselves to new heights. Essentially, the innovative coach decided that soccer could make use of the basketball facilities on the island and that there are many of its benefits that soccer can use to its advantage in the coming months and years. “There are basketball courts everywhere, in every municipality and school,” Smith told me when I asked him how they had come to embrace futsal on the island.
“When planning what I could do in Pohnpei, futsal never came up. I actually only started to consider smaller-sided games for adults after I arrived, originally considering outdoor five-a-side as an alternative to full-sized games in order to vary competition a bit from playing the same teams over and over. In five-a-side we could have double the teams, mix them up a bit and therefore hopefully add a bit more excitement. But the longer I was in Pohnpei my list of problems in developing soccer seemed to lead in one direction – games were being cancelled due to rain.”
According to a detailed report by the University of Guam, “Pohnpei is located in one of the wettest regions of the western North Pacific, and indeed, the world.” Basically, it rains there pretty much most of the time. Practising on indoor basketball courts whenever rain hindered outdoor sessions, Smith quickly discovered that not only was it solving the issue of missing essential time learning football, but it was exposing the players to new and varied ways of playing the game, and teaching them skills and techniques they wouldn’t have picked up during 11-a-side sessions.
“It brought about varied technical skills, tested [the players’] decision-making and highlighted work-rate,” Smith added. “It came with other benefits, too. Obviously, futsal is a format recognised by FIFA which other Pacific islands, such as the Solomon Islands, are excelling at, and if all goes well funding a five-man futsal team to travel to play off-island is less than half the cost of a full 11-man team, whereas on the island it would only require one full car to send a team to play a match, school versus school, for example. As adults, we played twice a week in the main town, Kolonia. Unfortunately, at the beginning, it was on at a time when most were still at work. Yet when word got around, we had about 20 for each session, playing intense 10-minute matches, winner stays on.”
Smith has been open to new opportunities of developing football on the island ever since becoming Technical Director in early 2017 and has brought with him a great deal of experience from years of coaching at the highest levels.
Not only does his resumé show impressive stints as a coach with Nottingham Forest and Lincoln City in England, but Smith has also worked with Paris Saint-Germain as head coach of Les Parisiens’ Bengaluru academy in India, undoubtedly one of the best and most forward-thinking clubs in European football.
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What this all means for Pohnpei is that they have received world-class insight from a man who knows how to not only take charge of sessions but is experienced in coaxing the best out of young, developing footballers. Plus, the islanders are allowing their foundations to be re-laid, with practical developments.
Moreover, Chris has had hands-on experience of coach education, meaning that he is well-placed to usher in a group of educated native coaches and school teachers on the island so that one day they will be self-sufficient enough, have the relevant knowledge to coach their fellow Pohnpeians and able to prove to the likes of FIFA that they have implemented the basics needed for a sustainable future of football.
Smith not only introduced futsal and attempted to tackle the issue of space and weather, but he also started a youth league, promoted soccer in elementary schools and has already managed to bring football to roughly 1.5 percent of the entire State’s population through his work. “The 1.5 percent is a rough estimation, based on probably bad maths. We visited 14 out of 31 schools, had between 20 and 90 at each session, averaging around 40. So, 40 times 14 is upwards of 550, from a population of around 35,000,” Smith told me.
It’s a minute reach and, admittedly, a tiny figure. Although it highlights how much more work there is to do, it just goes to show how focused Smith and his colleagues are on making a difference. “Firstly, what’s important is that children know that soccer is an option. Right now, it is still a niche sport in Micronesia, and the knowledge of the general population is low, so they are unlikely to be exposed to the game by any other means.
“We obviously believe it is a hugely fun sport for young people to play, but the game suits Pohnpeian and Micronesian soccer in other ways. It is an incredibly cheap and simple game to play, even in the most remote parts of this already remote island. It requires barely any coaching or rules to begin playing.
“Looking forward, when considering competing on a global level it is obviously important for our players’ ability to begin earlier, as many current players didn’t pick up the sport until teenagers or adults which is a massive disadvantage. As well as this, it also suits the shorter stature of many Micronesians better than the dominant sport of basketball,” Smith added.
Selling soccer to the natives as something fun – another pastime to enjoy and share in with family and friends – has been just as important as anything funding-related. After all, if the desire isn’t there and the numbers are non-existent, then there will be nowhere to direct the funds, no young players to mould and no grassroots base to cultivate. Plus, the greater awareness there is of the game, the more potential donors there will be for future funding campaigns.
To help make this happen, Smith told me that his time as coach saw him introduce school kids to easily accessible games like “one-touch street football, football tennis, heads and volleys” and lots more. Because while FIFA acceptance will always be the end goal and money is a necessity for the senior team to flourish and compete at the highest level, it is interesting to see that the PSA are wise enough to know that long-term progress needs to be pursued all the time and that nurturing a love for the beautiful game at its roots should not be ignored along the way to financial growth.
Arguably, two of the most serious challenges facing Pohnpei’s soccer aspirations are obesity and drug addiction. In Up Pohnpei, Watson strongly acknowledges the widespread usage of betel nut and alcohol among the islanders while also highlighting the state’s issue with rampant obesity – negative drawbacks which could require a long time to combat effectively.
In isolation, these two scourges are influential for all the wrong reasons and are undoubtedly deep-rooted societal issues. In truth, should they go unchallenged or become more prominent, the PSA could have fewer naturally-talented players to develop. Indeed, for an island looking to grow a neglected sport, they are also red-flag warnings that Pohnpeians like to do things on their own terms.
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As detailed in a 2015 BBC report by Cindy Sui and Anna Lacey, betel nuts are derived from the Areca plant and are a dangerous carcinogen that they describe as ‘Asia’s deadly secret’. The nuts are freely available across the FSM and can be chewed or smoked. Giving the consumer a lucid buzz which he describes as producing a ‘mind-altering state’ in his book Up Pohnpei, Watson also mentions that consumption of it can lead to severe dental decay, numbing of the mouth and, if persisted with, numbing of the body.
According to a World Health Organization report on Micronesia back in 2008, focusing specifically on Pohnpei, as much as ‘26.9 percent of the surveyed population was daily betel nut chewers’ – across both genders – with men reported as being more susceptible to the drug than their female counterparts.
As for the problems of obesity and the struggles with weight that a lot of Pohnpeians deal with, coach Smith has a pragmatic view on it that means he is keen to steer clear of hyperbole or panic. “I’ve seen figures of around 90 percent [obesity] quoted for FSM which is fairly shocking, but I think the reality varies. From my observations, it seems fairly age-based; children generally have a lot of freedom and can be fairly active and the government and schools have got a lot better at encouraging sports.
“Obviously this is great and I agree that giving positive experiences of sports to young people can inspire life-long participation and further chances of living a healthy lifestyle, but although sports – although sadly not soccer – are taken very seriously and are highly-competitive, there is little support or participation after that and people often lose touch, and it seems to me that people grow gradually more obese through adulthood.”
As mentioned, Smith has been targeting schools and attempting to capitalise on the sport-focused nature of Pohnpeians by drip-feeding soccer to them, but during his coaching days on the island he worked a little to campaign for healthy-eating as well. If that were to take hold over time, the effects could trickle through and encourage kids to snack on fruit and vegetables instead of sugary sweets as they often currently do, according to Smith.
“After three months, I’m obviously no expert in Micronesian society, but it also seems that younger people are worked harder at home, whereas the older and more respected you are in your family you are served on a lot more, with increasingly unhealthy and fatty foods. However, kids’ snacks aren’t much better, with the favourite being kool aid powder straight from the packet, leaving kids with dyed-red fingers for the next couple of days,” he told me.
Unhealthy lifestyles and diet clearly permeate the Pohnpeian culture, and the powers-that-be will not be able to eradicate these sorts of hard-wired predilections overnight. Although easing these vices and reducing the negative effect they have on the local population are likely to fall under government initiatives like in-school campaigns and advertisements, the fact that they still exist as serious issues should make the drive to popularize football, a healthy and active pursuit, even more important than ever before.
It’s never going to be the PSA or the FSM FA’s sole jobs to tackle societal dilemmas, but their work can certainly make a difference along the way. It’s also important that FIFA, an organisation whose motto is ‘For the Game. For the World’, realise that they too could have an important part to play in Micronesia in battling these dangerous problems in the years ahead.
When Watson started out alongside his friend Matt Conrad, the opportunity to join the Nouvelle Federation-Board (NF-Board) came along early on. The NF-Board was an organization that represented non-FIFA members and offered them the opportunity to feature in their own version of the official World Cup. It also had the appeal of being a support group for minnow nations and outsiders.
However, after discovering that the NF-Board did not offer financial assistance during his time as head coach, Watson took it upon himself to not fill out the registration forms – scaremongering rumours also played their part in the move. “At the time I was on Pohnpei, the only non-FIFA organisation was the NF-Board. Although they organised some very impressive VIVA World Cups for non-FIFA teams, around the time I was in Pohnpei they had become less active and their communications weren’t very convincing. They seemed to want Pohnpei on their list for the sake of listing them, so we never joined. In spite of that, the NF-Board continues to list Pohnpei and Yap, despite the fact nobody on the island has ever spoken to them.
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“After I left Pohnpei, things changed. The NF-Board became defunct and a new group formed called the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA). CONIFA is much more organised, proactive and actually takes an interest in member development,” Watson told me.
Turning down the chance to join the NF-Board also saw the opportunity to play competitive games against similarly-matched opponents disappear for several years, contests which would surely have benefitted the team’s overall development.
Holding out for FIFA has been a gamble, but since that initial decision was taken, Watson himself has become a Director at CONIFA which has essentially replaced the NF-Board and sought to become a more proactive, useful version. CONIFA is a non-profit group which, according to their official website, “supports representatives of international football teams from nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports-isolated territories.”
Watson tells me that juggling his Pohnpei loyalties and being a representative for CONIFA has been “an odd position to be in in some ways,” but he is confident that the work he is juggling can prove beneficial in the face of FIFA’s stubbornness. “If I had the choice now I would sign up to CONIFA as [a] way to provide a step up to FIFA and some support in this phase.
“However, there’s a view in Micronesia that joining CONIFA could harm a FIFA application by annoying them. We’ve had confirmation from FIFA that isn’t the case but I can understand the reluctance to rattle the cage. This is quite common in the region. Everyone is scared of doing something that hinders their FIFA application even after they have been left in limbo for years. It’s completely understandable but frustrating. So, as a good middle ground CONIFA will offer support to anyone in the region without having to join as a member,” Watson explained.
“At CONIFA, we aim to assist our nations in getting into FIFA’s family, we never want to stand in the way. What I realised when working in Pohnpei is that there’s not a bridge between no assistance and FIFA, and that’s badly needed. So, at CONIFA we hope to create that bridge by providing equipment, coaches, competition and even assistance in completing FIFA applications, following them up and, if necessary, lobbying. We’re currently working with Kiribati and Tuvalu who are in exactly the same position as Micronesia, so in that way it’s a very complementary role,” Watson added.
Although scaremongering has played its part in Pohnpei and the rest of the FSM not joining CONIFA, Watson also feels as though the costs involved in attending their events like the World Football Cup are far too high and unaffordable, especially so when Pohnpei have only ever been able to raise minimal amounts of money over prolonged periods of time.
Although Watson concedes to me that “tournaments mean a hell of a lot” when it comes to developing and improving at a technical level, it’s obvious that attending the 2018 edition of the CONIFA World Cup in Barawa, Somalia would be costly. It would involve transport costs there and back, accommodation expenses in hostels or hotels, food and drink for the squad and backroom team plus whatever other charges that might crop up along the way like medical bills for injuries. As of now, it would take them months, if not years, to save for such an extravagant event.
So it makes sense that the focus is on grassroots and distributing whatever money they can into forward-planning. Anything else would be short-sighted and vainglorious.
For a state like Pohnpei where funding arrives seldom and in small packages, end goals need to be realistic and achievable. So, for now, the immediate future is focused on the upcoming Micronesian Games which will see a Pohnpei soccer team compete for glory against the other nearby states, and perhaps one or two neighbouring teams like Palau, next July.
The tournament, which is held every four years and is a multi-discipline event that includes basketball, rugby, volleyball, spearfishing and several others, is Pohnpei’s only chance to test themselves against outside opposition – apart from rare funded trips like the one they completed in 2008. So, it is vital that the preparation in the lead-up to it runs as smoothly as possible.
Their soccer team have won the gold medal at it before (indeed, the last time around, according to the Kaselehlie Press’ Bill Jaynes, they claimed one of the highest number of medals with 114 across the board), and with the health of football on the island improving all the time and just under a year to go until it all kicks off, they are in the best position they have ever been to do so again and prove that they can be consistent by defending their title.
Chris Smith told me that he plans to stay involved as Technical Director “for as long as he can” which is great news for the longevity of the project. After all, having consistency is important if they are to achieve their goals. Indeed, Smith says he may even return to his coaching role ahead of the ‘Micro Games’ depending on how things work out.
For now, though, the search has already started to try and find a coach willing to step in and continue Smith and Watson’s good work to date. Before Smith’s departure, they had been ready to appoint a coach by the name of Blaine McKenna to take up the primary coaching duties across the island. Unfortunately though, the young Irish coach, who spoke with me about his experience of working on five different continents, was forced to turn down the chance a few short weeks before he was scheduled to fly in to Pohnpei as he was offered a more lucrative deal with Ubon UMT, a professional club in Thailand’s top flight.
It’s a reminder of how difficult it is for the Pacific islanders to achieve their goals and get what they want, but having come so close to recruiting such a promising young coach it’s equally obvious that they are doing all they can to reach the next level of development.
It has taken a long time to get this far, and the journey is not over yet for Pohnpei and their fellow Micronesians. Besides, with such dedicated figures leading the way and continuing to pursue what’s best for the future, it is surely only a matter of time until the islanders are finally granted their long-held wish of becoming FIFA’s unlikeliest 212th member