It is said that: ‘No dreamer is ever too small; no dream is ever too big’. The Guam Football Association have set about turning that expression into reality. Though one of FIFA’s smallest Member Associations both in terms of population and size, the remote northern Pacific island nation have dreamed the dream and are now working hard to realise their ambitions.
An overseas territory of USA, Guam has a population of just 180,000 and is based in the Asian Football Confederation’s sub-region of East Asia, where the likes of Japan and Korea Republic hold sway. Yet despite all these challenges, Guam decided that with proper planning and structure they can achieve previously unattainable goals.
A few years back double-digit defeats were the norm for Guam, and a 19-0 loss against Iran in the nation’s first-ever FIFA World Cup™ qualifier in 2000 was, for a short while, a record scoreline for the world’s biggest football competition. Fast forward to the present day, though, and a succession of positive results have lifted Guam to a record-high of 160 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and a credible position of 33 of the AFC’s 46 nations.
Under the guiding hand of FA President Richard Lai, and with multi-million dollar assistance from FIFA, Guam have established football headquarters which national coach Gary White describes as “first class”.
A national football academy is now in operation that boasts a programme across different age groups, both male and female. This off-field development has been the result of careful planning and big ambitions, as Guam FA President Richard Lai told FIFA.com.
"One of my goals coming in as president of the GFA was to work diligently with my EXCO to build a world class National Training Centre, with the most modern equipment and structure available,” he said. “With the assistance of FIFA, AFC, the government and many sponsors, we are achieving this goal.”
Guam are one of the only National FA's to have a solar panel green energy system installed, thus allowing extra funds to be spent on football development. “Our next development project is to build a sports science, rehab, recovery and strength centre to further assist our national players and coaching staff to prepare for international competition. We believe now have all the ingredients for stability and future success.
“Our program is quickly developing on and off the field and this is highlighted with our recent success with the men's national team,” continued Lai. “We are now three games unbeaten and have reached our highest ever FIFA ranking, which are real milestones and shows the improvement we have made over the last couple of years and the impact the programme has experienced under our head coach Gary White.”
Already with a fast-growing record of achievement working with smaller nations, White is further enhancing his reputation just two years into the role. One of the first and most notable changes was the applying of the moniker ‘Matao’, a traditional term that represents courage amongst the indigenous Chamorro population. The strong connection with the local culture has elevated the nation team to a new level of recognition and popularity within the nation.
The Guamanians aggressive approach towards their own self-development is evidenced by upcoming matches in CONCACAF nation Aruba, with inter-continental travel unusual for small nations. “This type of preparation activity is usually only implemented by powerhouse national teams. We aspire to one day compete with those teams,” White told FIFA.com. “This gives you an insight into the mentality that we have at the GFA.
“I have a unique positive support system here that I have never experienced before as a professional football coach. We are all on the same wave length moving towards the same goals. We have set ourselves what we believe is an attainable goal. That is to be the fifth-strongest programme within ten years in East Asia.”
Several USA-based players feature for the Matao, the most notable being Los Angeles Galaxy defender AJ de la Garza. Arguably, however, it is the captain, and the team’s leading goalscorer, Jason Cunliffe, who is the team’s focal point. Born in the capital Hagatna, Cunliffe talks with passion about the national team. “It it used to be a case of, ‘How badly are we going to get beaten?’ Now there is belief and expectation. It has done a 180 [degree reversal] in only two, three years.
“We have a small population, but big hearts. And that can take us a long way.”