Northern Mariana Islands looking to make a splash
Northern Mariana Islands are the newest member of the AFC
The Micronesia archipelago sits in the north of the Pacific Ocean
Territory has strong ambitions inspired by the success of neighbours Guam
Few people, in truth, would be familiar with the Northern Mariana Islands. Some might recognise the name as a famous battleground in the later stages of World War II. In football terms, perhaps only fans with a keen eye for detail would recognise the name of the largest island, Saipan, as the site of an infamous Republic of Ireland camp ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™.
But Northern Mariana Islands - located in the remote mid-northern part of the Pacific Ocean - have long been working hard on making their own impact on the football world. Indeed, the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association (NMIFA) are football’s newest constituent at continental level, having become the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) 47th member in December.
And they have their own “big brother”, Guam, showing them the way. Guam - the southernmost island in the Mariana archipelago - has enjoyed extraordinary accomplishments in recent years, with strong grassroots development translating to senior success. Their qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup was highlighted by a win over India - surely one of the great World Cup results if purely measured by the respective populations of the two nations.
Little brother's big ambitions
Like Guam, Northern Mariana Islands are a Micronesian-based territory of the United States. Despite their administrative status, the archipelago boasts a hugely diverse population, headed by Filipino and the local Chamorro ethnic groups.
“They [Guam] are like our big brother and has helped and guided us through our journey,” Ruselle Zapanta, NMIFA Executive Director, told FIFA.com. “Guam has also been our biggest rivals, enemies on the pitch and best of friends off it. Any win against them in a competition has always been a great feeling as it shows progress on our part given their longer history.
“With the support of friends nearby at the Guam FA, Japan FA, Korea FA and support from EAFF (East Asian Football Federation) and the AFC, NMIFA has been able and continues to learn and develop its foundations to grow football within the community.”
While baseball is traditionally the most popular sport, that long-standing hegemony is now being challenged.
“Football is not so far behind [baseball] in terms of number of players,” Zapanta says. “Our year-round competitions for all ages gives us a great way to overcome other sports and slowly get households thinking of football.
“We understand it will take generations to turn football into the islands [main] pastime activity, but we hear stories from parents about how kids are beginning to look into football instead of baseball. Now with our training facility, football has a home here in the Northern Mariana Islands and we look forward to using football as a source of positivity to benefit our island community.”
Chasing a home run
As an associate member of the AFC, Northern Mariana Islands national teams have previously participated in various competitions run by the continental body and the EAFF.
Despite their own geographical limitations and relatively modest playing base, Northern Mariana Islands have further ambitions, despite recent set-backs caused by COVID-19.
“Our focus is on our grassroots and young players,” Zapanta said. “It’ll take time and patience to have a competitive adult team as our program transitions through generations. But gone are the days when the organisation had to scramble a team, recruiting and begging young baseball players, or kids from other sports, to make up what would be junior national teams.
“Something we are proud of is how we put emphasis on giving equal opportunity to both our men’s and women’s programs. It is just as important that we develop our female players at all levels and share the same opportunities we are able to offer through football.
“We know football has the power to touch the lives of many in positive ways. We want to touch and bring well-being and a great quality of life to others through football.”