Competing in a first-ever FIFA World Cup™ qualifier on home soil is a unique history-making occasion for any nation. For many established countries that event occurred long ago in a distant sepia-tinged era. For Guam, however, that particular ground-breaking moment is only now on the verge of becoming reality.
Central Asia’s Turkmenistan will visit the fiercely proud northern Pacific island nation on 11 June. Five days later India, the world’s second most populous nation will be in town, while four-time World Cup participants Iran and Gulf nation Oman are also in a group that is symbolic of Asian football’s rich cultural diversity.
For Guam the challenge is massive. A remote nation of less than 200,000 inhabitants, their largest town would barely fill half of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium when Iran host Guam in September. The last time they tackled Team Melli on their home turf, Guam crashed to a scarcely believable 19-0 defeat. But that was in 2000 during a very different era in what was the nation’s one and only World Cup campaign.
Successfully overcoming insurmountable hurdles has been a recurring theme for Guam in recent years since the appointment of English coach Gary White, and some shrewd management by the Guam FA. Under White, Guam have constantly provided headaches to more fancied teams on the continent, collecting a new high watermark on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking into the bargain.
Current national team captain Jason Cunliffe knows a thing or two about Guamanian football. He has, after all, been a kicking a ball on Guam since he was old enough to walk. And Cunliffe, who is a self-confessed true believer for the local football cause, doubted he would ever have the opportunity to represent his nation in a World Cup match on home soil.
“You don’t get too many chances to make history anymore in this day and age,” Cunliffe told FIFA.com between serving customers at his bank job. “To be honest I never thought this [hosting a World Cup qualifier] could happen. To be able to host the World Cup qualifiers is an amazing thing, and I take great pride in that. Nobody wants to grow football on this island more than I do. I have played here since I was five and compared to then, what we have now is tremendous. But we can’t rest on our laurels.”
One of the recent changes within the national team ranks has been a recognition of Guamanian heritage. Most tangible is the adoption of Matao as the team’s nickname, which is a traditional term that represents courage amongst the indigenous Chamorro population.
Guam has a diverse population, one reflective of its history. “We have been dealing with colonialism for three or four hundred years now,” says Cunliffe, who boasts American parentage on his father’s side and Guamanian on his mother’s side. “In general there is a real resurgence in the [local] culture, not just in football. Guam is quite westernised now, but it is good to remember where and who we come from. We say the inifresi [a pledge protecting Guam’s land and people] before every training session and every match. It helps us understand our identity.”
Cunliffe, a technically adept left-footed attacking player, has enjoyed a diverse football career. He impressed at college level in Houston and Santa Clara, California, while there was also a stint in the Philippines and even a trial at J.League powerhouse Nagoya Grampus Eight. It is a journey that has helped put Guam on the football map. “The first thing people often say is ‘you are a good footballer’, and the second thing they say is ‘where are you from?’. That always make me proud [of Guam]. I’m very proud of what I have been able to achieve.”
Cunliffe, like most his team-mates must work to make ends meet, though LA Galaxy-based defender AJ DeLaGarza is a notable exception among the Matao ranks. It all makes for a challenging lifestyle, and Cunliffe’s daily routine is a world away in every sense from most national team skippers around the globe. The 31-year-old rises at 4am to go to the gym, spends a long day working at a bank, and then trains in the evening before arriving home just in time to say goodnight to his three young children. “It is taxing, but I definitely take pride in my work ethic.”
Guam’s rise in the global pecking order meant they were seeded into Asia’s second round. Cunliffe and Co took the opportunity in March to test themselves, playing out a 1-0 loss to Hong Kong and a 2-2 draw against four-time south-east Asia champions Singapore. “I think the press in Singapore assumed the result would be a foregone conclusion," Cunliffe said. "Yet we could have been 3-0 up after 15 minutes, and in the end they were lucky to get the draw.”
“Moving forward has been a constant theme for us,” Cunliffe says with pride. “The on-field product just gets better and better. The gaffer [coach] has reached out and found a number of eligible players for Guam. The team is growing tremendously and we have still not yet reached our full potential. That is great for us, and I think, scary for our opponents.
“We go out to win,” Cunliffe says very much in the Matao spirit. “We are looking to take scalps. We are not going to sit back and park the bus. We are going to come at you, and you will have to beat us.”