The turn of the millennium was a watershed moment for a tiny island nation in the western Pacific Ocean. The date: November 26 2000. The score: 16-0. The Guam players could not wait to trudge off the pitch in Tabriz, Iran and banish the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying result against Tajikistan from their memories. It came days after a 19-0 defeat to Iran.
“It was a kick in the butt to be honest. That’s the bedrock of where we are today,” Gary White, Guam’s coach since 2012 said to *FIFA.com *in an exclusive interview, of those heavy defeats. “For us, it was a turning point. It really is a great example of trying to find the equivalent benefit in every adversity. We needed to work harder, we needed facilities, elite development programmes and a long term plan."
Fast-forward almost 15 years and Guam are hosting a World Cup qualifier for the first time, against Turkmenistan. The Guam FA National Training Centre in Harmon, built with financial assistance from FIFA’s Goal Programme, is the venue for what turned out to be a historic match.
“The whole occasion was fantastic,” White recalled. “The excitement built up by the fans and the country, it was a special day.”
Just 14 minutes in, a long throw from the Guam right by Ryan Guy causes confusion in the Turkmenistan penalty area, and the ball ends up in the back of the net. An own goal, but the roar of the packed crowd indicated they didn’t care how it went in. The Matao hold out for a 1-0 win. On the final whistle, some players sank to their knees, others ran to family and friends in the crowd and some grabbed a Guam flag and paraded around the pitch. Quite a difference to that glum November day in Tabriz.
“To get the win was really a memorable, historic event for the people of Guam,” White said. “It’s hard to explain to someone that wasn’t there the feeling when we came off the field. Thousands of fans waiting for the team. What we’ve done is given the next generation of players something to aspire to. You can’t go anywhere without people thanking you and cheering you on. You can’t turn any TV on or listen to any radio station without them covering it. The whole base for this is the Guam Football Association National Training Centre, it’s the central location of football.”
Governed by the USA, Guam has a long-held passion for American Football and Baseball. But White credits Richard Lai, Guam FA’s President, with the nation’s newfound love of football, and helping to bring the GFA Training Centre to reality as the sport’s spiritual home in the country. It was Lai who persuaded White to leave his role as technical director at MLS side Seattle Sounders and uproot to Guam almost three years ago.
“The first thing that was evident was the fantastic training centre, that is all down to FIFA. We would never have a home to train otherwise,” White said. “We utilise it every day, we have national academies now, youth teams, coaching education. It’s a hotbed for football development. It’s the home of football in the country and it’s what separates us from all other sport.
“We’ve already managed to become the most popular sport in the country,” White continued. “Because of the youth leagues, the organisation and structure in place. At the end of the day it’s the personal initiative shown by Richard Lai and the executives to work closer with FIFA and try to get all the benefits of the development programmes that are available and utilise them."
Success not only creates joy, it generates expectation. Next up for Guam are India, coached by fellow Englishman Stephen Constantine. A country with a population of 1.25 billion facing up against an island with approximately 165,000 inhabitants.
“I am friends with Steve and I’ve always admired him,” White said. “When I was a younger coach growing up I’d read about him travelling all over the world. He’s such a nice guy, and such a good coach. He’s always had good success wherever he’s been. I’m humbled to stand on the sideline with him. When the draw [for AFC qualifying] was going on we were joking that we’d get each other. When we did we had a bit of a giggle. I know that we’ll have a cup of tea and discuss not only the game but football in general, so I’m looking forward to spending time with him. It should be another great occasion.”
White knows India, fresh from a narrow 2-1 defeat to Oman and 33 places above the Pacific Islanders in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, are riding a wave of optimism brought to the squad by Constantine.
“The result for India shows you the work that Steve’s doing,” White said. “Oman are a very strong team. To go close like they did, the scoreline says it all. It’s going to be a tough game for us, no doubt. We’re prepared for it. Our goal going into these matches was to be top of Group D between June and September before the second series of games. We have two home games and they’re games that we feel we can get results in."
What is White hoping for come the end of March 2016, the conclusion of the second round of Asian qualifying?
“Our final outcome that we want is to put Guam football on the map, and I think that’s happening already,” White said. “And for the team to continue to develop. The prize, if you like, is to get to the World Cup, the Asian Cup, but we’ll take each game at a time. It is a special time right now, I don’t want to put an end on it. Can we qualify for the World Cup? We know it’s going to be a tough road.”
With trips to Iran, Oman and India lying in wait, it will indeed be a difficult journey for Guam to even make it through to the next round. When quizzed about his personal path, the infectiously enthusiastic and ambitious coach is concentrating on the job at hand.
“I’m trying to get as much information and knowledge as I can,” White said. “I’m very passionate, I’m very driven and I have lofty goals I’m trying to achieve. It’s difficult to say where I’ll be, but right now I’m focussed on the World Cup which is the biggest competition in the world.”
Guam will be hoping White sticks around for a while yet, to erase any lingering trace of Tabriz from their memory and create more magic moments at their own home of football.