Little Guam making giant strides

A year can be a long time in football. And rarely has that cliché been more appropriate than in the case of Guam. The remote island nation in the north of the Pacific Ocean is used to welcoming tourists from Japan and USA, but football has rarely been in the spotlight. With very little historical pedigree on the international stage, Guam is suddenly, however, enjoying a massive growth spurt.

Guam Football Association (GFA) was founded in 1975, and became a FIFA Member Association only in 1996. Historically forays into international football were rare and invariably painful for Guam. Their maiden participation in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying proved particularly agonising and began with a 19-0 loss against Iran; a then record scoreline for the world’s most enduring international football competition.

Hefty defeats were common place, with the focus invariably on damage limitation. However, at the start of last year Guam appointed Gary White, an Englishman boasting a track-record of achievement with some of the globe’s smaller nations.

The Southampton-born White started his international voyage with British Virgin Islands as a 24-year-old, preceding none other than current Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas in the role. There followed a lengthy and successful stint at the helm of Bahamas, helping the Caribbean nation to a massive rise in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. And now White is intent on leaving his mark on another small nation with big ambitions.

Shiny infrastructure and rapid change
For much of the past century Guam has been governed by the United States, so it is little surprise that American sports have traditionally enjoyed the limelight. That is fast changing and football has recently become the most popular participation sport among the nation’s 200,000 inhabitants.

FIFA’s Goal Programme provided financial assistance to help the GFA construct what White describes as a "world class facility". The national training centre houses a full-sized pitch, mini-pitches, and facilities for futsal and beach soccer. There is also an impressive accomodation complex that has hosted J.League and K-League teams.

“I arrived last February and I have witnessed massive change,” White told FIFA.com. “In that period and before my time there has been huge growth and that is down to the vision and professionalism of the President Richard Lai, and the entire executive.”

“The work people have done here done in recent years is extraordinary. A lot of time and effort has been put in to take the game to another level. Now we are starting to see the results on the pitch.”

New horizons and fresh ambitions
Guam's results might be relatively small steps but in the context of the nation’s football history they are massive strides. They recently participated in the final qualifying stage of the East Asian Football Federation Championship (EAFF), where their performances provided overwhelming evidence of remarkably rapid growth.

In 2009, Guam lost 12-0 against Hong Kong. Fast forward three years to December’s EAFF and the Matao lost by a single goal against the same opponent. “Our players were in tears at the final whistle,” said White indirectly referencing the new-found ambition in the national team. Similarly, a 1-1 draw against Chinese Taipei contrasted markedly with heavy defeats in years gone by.

“The first thing I did when I arrived was change the mentality to a more winning mentality and psychologically that has been huge,” White said. “We spend far more time on the tactical side and strategy. And we have a national style of playing in keeping with the modern game.”

White has also introduced a form of Guamanian cultural engagement to football across all ages in the island nation. The national side adopted the moniker ‘Matao’, a traditional term that represents courage amongst the indigenous Chamorro population. Teams, both junior and senior, also perform a traditional chant (Inifresi) before each match, and even prior to training sessions.

Now Guam again have the opportunity to test themselves against far-bigger and better resourced nations. Next month’s qualifiers for the AFC Challenge Cup pits Guam against India, Chinese Taipei and hosts Myanmar. On offer is passage to next year’s tournament in the Maldives, with the eventual champion to gain a berth among the continental elite at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.

Though the squad is youthful, a number ply their trade overseas including several, unsurprisingly, in the United States. Most notable is midfielder Ryan Guy who competes for Major League Soccer's New England Revolution.

“We want to qualify, and we think we can do that,” said White of the looming challenge in Myanmar. “That would be the next step in our progression. We have a ten year plan to progress, and we are going to Myanmar to win it and again that comes back to our new mentality. If we have success, it gives the youngsters role models and something to aspire to.”