Micronesia to Mongolia: A coaching quest

Football may stretch to the four corners of the earth, but in trying to leave a mark on the game a pair of friends from London got closer to the edge of that particular rectangle than most tend to explore.

What began with musings as England crashed out of UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying, via a few pieces of fate, led to an inspirational story in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a book, a movie and a reality TV show in Mongolia. This is what the globe-trotting coaching adventures of Paul Watson and Matt Conrad have left them with so far.

Their journey began as the Three Lions awaited the result from Russia where they needed Andorra to beat the hosts to keep England's EURO 2008 hopes alive. When Andorra lost, the duo pondered who the worst team in the world was and whether they could still play international football themselves. A quick glance at the FIFA/Coca-Cola Ranking showed Guam as the bottom side.

“We then searched through their results to see who they had beaten," Conrad explained. "They had won against a bunch of non-FIFA ranked teams and one side, Yap, they had beaten 7-1. Finally we found that Yap had lost every game they'd played, except one – against Pohnpei."

Without a win in their history, the pair concluded Pohnpei were the side for them. One speculative email later to the tiny Pacific island and they had their first piece of luck - the former president of the Pohnpei Football Association was moving to London. “We thought this was a sign from the football heavens," Conrad admitted.

A step into the unknown
After an, initially cagey, meeting, they had been offered a role coaching the side thanks to almost enthusiasm alone. Despite only Watson's semi-professional playing background and his own research, along with Conrad's English Football Association emergency medical qualification, following a trial they got the job - albeit working for free. “I was always a bit of a tactical nerd, so I didn't struggle too much," Watson said, "but in Pohnpei it was very much a case of teaching the basics before anything else."

They did, however, have difficulty adapting to some of the island's more alien characteristics - a looser commitment to time-keeping being one of them. "When your work somewhere new I think it's probably quite natural to try to impose your own values at first, but the more you learn to work with the ways of the place itself, the better you get on," Watson admitted. "Pohnpei really taught me that, through a series of pretty hard lessons!"

The Federated States of Micronesia, which is made up of four islands - Pohnpei, Yap, Chouk and Kosrae - is about as tough a place as anywhere to maintain a national football team. Stretching across over one million square miles of sea and containing just 100,000 people, with poverty and obesity rife amongst large swathes of the population, it is maybe no surprise there was not a huge football culture in place.

Even so, on Pohnpei at least, the pair made progress. “That's what's so amazing about football, you don't really need much. To create a community of football-loving people all you need is the ball," Conrad fondly remembered.

The biggest achievement then was that this group of players were able to go back to the island and be the living proof that football can give you the chance to do something exceptional.
Coach Paul Watson on the progress made by the Pohnpei national team

With some funding from church groups and the local Olympic committee they got a regular league going, and saw some great development, until interest began to wane. They realised that without a greater objective the players would struggle to push forwards, so they set their sights on achieving something special: taking a Pohnpei side abroad in search of their first victory.

“Matt and I came to the conclusion that the only realistic place we could get to with established football was Guam," Watson recalled. However, without sponsorship that looked impossible. Enter their second stroke of luck. A family friend of Conrad's owned a cargo airline and through a gesture of great kindness offered to transport the team.

The incentive made the difference. “By the time we went to Guam we were training seven days a week with gym training at 5am every morning, so they were in incredible shape." Four games in six days later they had achieved their goal, stunningly beating a Guam Premier League side 7-1 and narrowly losing out to the nation's U-19 side, which were momentous steps only 18 months on from next to nothing.

The ultimate goal for both is to one day see Micronesia competing as a FIFA-recognised nation, with pilot programmes also set up on Yap and Chouk. “The biggest achievement then was that this group of players were able to go back to the island and be the living proof that football can give you the chance to do something exceptional," Watson said.

Mongolia beckons
Now almost three years on, with the film 'The Soccermen' set for a 2014 release, Watson has taken on another exceptional task - trying to build a title-challenging team from the ground up in the Mongolian Premier League.

“I always saw [Pohnpei] as a viable route into coaching," he explained. "But what I had done in Micronesia didn't really equate to anything back home. It's not like I expected Chelsea to come offer me a job, or even in [the fourth tier of English football], but my CV didn't really mean anything to anyone."

A third stroke of fate brought about a new opportunity as the director, of what would go on to be called Bayangol FC, saw an article on their work in Pohnpei, and asked if Watson would be interested in helping form a team in Ulanbator - the coldest national capital on the planet.

"It's a real step up compared to Pohnpei in terms of the level of talent and opportunity for something to happen. I think there is the potential for something big here."

While there is certainly more available to him compared to what he experienced in Micronesia, Watson is keen to point out he has far from been given a blank cheque book. “The level of resources we've got would put off any manager further on in their career. It's not like I've taken a job in Thailand or India but I think they were quite happy to get someone like me as I'm probably less demanding in terms of wages, my surroundings and transfer budget."

Even if the job is more serious - like including a wage - Conrad, who primarily as a filmmaker is busy editing together their first trip, is still intrigued by its potential. “Coaching in Mongolia is going to be an adventure whatever way you slice it, it's Mongolia for goodness sake! It's a totally new and exciting place."

Nothing's ever going to trump football for the ease in which you can create something positive.
Matt Conrad on the impact of football in Pohnpei

Unlike Micronesia, many Mongolians are football mad. However, it is English football that encapsulates them, but with the help of the aforementioned reality TV show, Watson hopes to change that.

The brainchild of the same director that brought him to the club, the programme - who's title translates as 'Dream Team' - will follow Bayangol as they put together a side and begin in Mongolia's top flight.

"Many people see football as a foreign sport, even though it's the most popular one here," Watson said. "We're trying to build a new generation of players which kids will see on TV and think 'I want to be like them', rather than seeing Luis Suarez and thinking 'I'd love to be him but I never could be'."

Like in Micronesia, there have been challenges to get used to such as traffic that can make a 20 minute walk take two hours and cold that Watson admits that "if the trials were outside we'd all have died". The latter also means the season shuts down for six-to-seven months, so try-outs have effectively been for a futsal team - with the indoor sport occupying players through the winter.

Plans had initially been to sign a series of star names and aim for the championship in their maiden season, but with a team formed largely of players in their late teens, Watson feels it has the potential to do more than just triumph for one season. “It's a much more worthwhile project for everyone if we don't break the bank and basically do a Manchester City and buy up all the big stars here."

It is that idea of making a difference that underpins both their epic trips. “I think we changed the trajectory of a lot of these kids' lives," said Conrad, reflecting on Pohnpei. "I hope people see this and think 'I want to do that'. It doesn't have to be Micronesia, it can be close to home too.

“I really believe in football as a healing and binding thing for a community. Many things can do it, but nothing's ever going to trump football for the ease in which you can create something positive."

Watson will be at least looking for Mongolia to make it two projects out of two end positively, and no doubt as another success too.

The book 'Up Pohnpei' by Paul Watson is available now. 'The Soccermen' is scheduled for release in March 2014.