"When we were first admitted as a member association by FIFA in 1996, football wasn't a big deal here," recalls Richard Lai, President of the Guam Football Association (GFA). "We were the fifth-ranked sport in terms of participation on the island, a long way behind baseball, basketball, American football and volleyball. But despite having the weakest national team in world football at the time, we were convinced of football's potential in Guam."
The intervening years have since proved that optimism correct, as football now reigns as the Pacific island's number one sport, while the GFA can pride itself on being the best organised and most well-established of the country's sporting organisations. It only takes a quick tour of the national technical centre to confirm that football enjoys rude health in Guam, with the sporting facilities all looking impressively new and the offices bustling with activity.
What stands out above all, though, is the wide range of advertising materials from sponsors around the complex, as car companies, telecommunications firms and even a major international airline all proudly proclaim their partnership with the GFA. Such marketing efforts may not be unusual in football, but they are more commonly associated with professional clubs – rather than a small association whose national team has never progressed beyond the preliminary stages in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying.
Generating income for football
"We don't want to set ourselves any limits," says Cherri Stewart, an executive director at the GFA. "And it's not because our results on the pitch aren't going to translate into profits that we're just going to fold our arms. The quality of our football may not be at that level yet – and we're working relentlessly to get there – but we have other qualities we can draw on: the standing we have earned among the island's different communities, football's own values and also our own organisation and our credibility. All those factors together ensure we have an image that our partners appreciate and want to be associated with."
Establishing a diverse array of revenue streams is a constant priority for the GFA. "Our only source of income to begin with was financial assistance from FIFA," explains Lai. "My main preoccupation when I became President was to find other sources. I asked myself how we could use our assets to generate revenue – our technical centre, for example. We have the best infrastructure on the island, so we rent it out. FIFA has always said that the financial support they offer has to allow each association to become self-sufficient. We've followed that to the letter, and while the Goal projects have provided us with the foundations, we've used those foundations to generate our own funds."
Those efforts have not gone unnoticed either, and when FIFA launched the Win-Win programme, Guam was an ideal candidate for one of the new initiatives' projects. "In Guam, nobody plays in the daytime," adds Lai. "It's too hot and people are working, so we play at night. That means we need powerful lighting, but electricity is expensive because we don't have any nuclear or hydroelectric plants in our country. What we have is the sun, so we asked FIFA to fund the installation of solar panels. In the past, we spent USD $5,000 per month on electricity, but now we can use that $5,000 elsewhere: to pay for a coach, buy equipment or organise tournaments. In short, to help develop football."
With that goal in mind, the GFA have also put their faith in Gary White as national team coach. "We want to aim higher and we're not afraid to do it," says the Englishman, who serves a dual role as technical director. "We may be small, but we have a lot of confidence in ourselves and we think we can become one of the top five sides in the region and break into the world top 100. We've already achieved a lot, which nobody thought was possible, but we can do even better and even more."
Currently 165 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Guam are clearly aiming high, and the association is also intent on attracting an ever greater flow of players – both men and women. "That's where we've made the biggest difference, with women players," says Valentino San Gil, Secretary General of the GFA. "Today, 40 per cent of the footballers in Guam are women, whereas there were hardly any at all 20 years ago."
Reaching out to 'soccer moms'
That progress owes much to the GFA's incredible spirit of innovation. Naturally, they have developed their own national women's league and invest plenty of effort at youth level, particularly in schools, to begin developing talent for the national team over the coming years. But, crucially, their ideas do not stop there. As San Gil admits, the GFA tries "to leave no stone unturned in order to find new players".
It was this attitude that led to the creation of a league for a unique category of women players. "We had the feeling that there was a gap between the youth competitions and our competitive league," explains Stewart. "We wanted to be able to provide recreational playing opportunities for women looking to stay active through a fun sporting practice. In American culture, 'soccer moms' are mothers who take their children to football, accompany them, watch games and prepare refreshments before taking their children home again. They're kind of an institution, so we had the idea: what if we got the soccer moms involved? These women want to be active and they know football through watching their kids. We began coaxing them on to the pitch and it's been a huge success, much more than we expected."
Today, over 300 'soccer moms' take part in the recreational league set up for them, just one more sign that the GFA's creative energy is working wonders. And the ambitious association is not about to rest on its laurels either.