For Pacific islands, football development can be a haphazard and fragile process
‘Fifa develops football everywhere.’
If you watched even one game at this summer’s World Cup, you will have seen that slogan nestled among the world’s most costly advertising hoardings every time the ball crossed the halfway line. Fifa’s showpiece event is the ideal opportunity for the game’s governing body to revel in the scale of its operations. As the greatest players in the world do battle for the amusement of a billion, it’s almost impossible to imagine that anyone has been forgotten.
Fifa has 209 member associations, a staggering number when you consider that there are only 193 members of the United Nations. This anomaly is easily resolved when you bear in mind that many football ‘nations’ such as the Faroe Islands and Guam are actually dependent territories. Then there are cases like Palestine and Taiwan, recognised by Fifa but not members of the United Nations. A little closer to home, there’s the thorny issue of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales playing independently in spite of forming the United Kingdom. Remove the territories, dependencies and other awkward entities and you are left with a total of 188 independent countries in Fifa.
Through a simple process of subtraction, that leaves eight nations that aren’t represented. The two Europeans on the list are fairly simple to work out. Vatican City does have a league and a cup competition, the Clericus Cup, which pits teams mostly composed of Swiss Guards and administrative staff against each other. There was even speculative talk a few years ago about Giovanni Trapattoni taking the reins and trying to enter the Vatican in Italy’s professional leagues. Fairly unsurprisingly that has never happened and the Vatican instead settle for occasional fixtures against Europe’s other non-Fifa nation, Monaco. A small group of passionate players remain insistent that Monégasque players should have the chance to represent their nation, but for the foreseeable future Monaco will have to make do with one of France’s top club sides.
The other six Fifa exiles have longer, more complex tales to tell and they all hail from one region of the world where football development is stuck in limbo – the Pacific Islands. It’s probably safe to say that most people in Europe would struggle to locate any of Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Federated States of Micronesia on a map, but they would be best served looking for the largest expanse of blue on the globe. The Pacific six are some of the most remote islands on earth and home to inhospitable climates and high obesity rates. The time difference from Fifa’s base in Switzerland is ferocious, email contact is at best sporadic and flying there can break the bank.
Nauru and the Marshall Islands: football’s final frontier
Fifa probably shouldn’t lose any sleep over the state of football in the Marshall Islands and Nauru because, put simply, there’s not much to develop. The world’s smallest island nation, Nauru, is a tragic riches to rags story. For a brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nauru’s phosphorous stocks, envied and needed by Australia in particular, made it one of the wealthiest countries on earth by GDP. The island was over-mined, leaving its centre desolate like a moonscape and the wealth was squandered and misappropriated. Today, Nauru is poverty-stricken and home to Australia’s controversial immigrant processing camps. Aussie Rules has always had a stronghold, but Nauru excels at weightlifting where the islanders’ short stature and strength make them a force to be reckoned with. Wikipedia used to claim that Nauru had a remarkable 100% win record as a football nation – a 2-1 victory over the Solomon Islands in 1994. An impressive achievement, but a false one. It turns out the game was between Nauruans and some Solomon workers, by no means their national side. After many months of attempted email contact, Nauru’s current football association stated that there is a team who are training on an old golf course. They don’t seem to play very often.
The Marshall Islands have the odd boast of being the only sovereign nation never to have even entertained the idea of a football team. Upon mentioning a football team to an Olympic Committee representative, he looked genuinely mystified and said he wouldn’t know where to start. More pertinently, there simply isn’t any interest on the major hubs of Majuro or Kwajalein, which is pretty much off-limits to anyone but US military personnel. There are 1156 other islands to try, but it’s safe to say you’d have trouble starting a successful kick-around on any of them.
Up Pohnpei: Micronesia’s football renaissance
However, a fortnight after the 2014 World Cup final, a very different final was being contested on a small Pacific island on a pitch composed of sand, mud, puddles and a small amount of grass. This was the Micronesian Games gold medal match held on the island of Pohnpei – one of the islands of the Federated States of Micronesia – and it saw the hosts defeat Palau 3-1 in front of around 300 fans. In isolation the game more closely resembled a Sunday League match than an international fixture, but the competition which also included two of the other four islands that form part of the Federated States of Micronesia – Chuuk and Yap – was a massive step forward for football in the Pacific. Sleepy Kosrae is yet to welcome the sport.
I became personally invested in the footballing travails of the Federated States of Micronesia in 2009. My arrival on the island of Pohnpei was the result of passion and delusion in equal measure. While labouring away as a failed semi-professional footballer, my flatmate Matt and I came up with the idea of finding the world’s lowest ranked national team, naturalising and playing for them. When we scoured the Fifa Rankings we found that even the lowest nations had professionals and wouldn’t be excited to see us, but we discovered another list of rankings for places not recognised by Fifa for geographical, political or logistical reasons. At the bottom of that list we found Pohnpei, whose results included a heart-breaking penalty shootout defeat by Yap and a 16-1 thrashing from Guam in 1998 at the Micro Games – a small Olympics for the islands of the region. When we emailed the Pohnpei Football Assocation’s general contact address, we received a friendly response from president, Charles Musana, but he apologised that he had just moved to Chingford in East London a week earlier. Seizing on this quirk of fate we met Musana, who told us that Pohnpeian football had gone into decline, but there were still keen players if we wanted to coach them. After due consideration, we decided that we did and set off for the island via flights to Dubai, Manila, Guam and the neighbouring island of Chuuk.
Pohnpei is among the wettest places on earth. It rains heavily almost every day and the pitch, PICS Field, is almost always under a foot of water, especially on the edge of the boxes where marshes are home to a sizeable colony of toads. The rotten goal nets on PICS pointed to a loss of belief in the game, but the Olympic Committee chief Jim Tobin had always tried to stimulate football growth despite the lack of resources. As part of the American ‘sphere of influence’, which means the USA pays a large sum for the right to place troops on Micronesia’s islands should they need to, the islanders mostly wrestle, play basketball, baseball and volleyball. However, it very quickly became clear that there were talented footballers on the island, but they had never been given a reason to keep on with the sport, instead often turning to the almost omnipresent stupefying substances that permeate daily life on the island – sakau, a potent drink with anaesthetic properties, and betel nut, an acrid chew that can cause oral cancer and is mixed with slaked lime.
The turning point in our football mission came when we set up Pohnpei’s first organised league, which brought existing players out of the woodwork and created a new generation of football lovers. The number of players increased steadily and a Pohnpei state team was formed which trained four times a week, but they had nobody to play against except cobbled-together teams of expats, which often included me. The problem, as ever, was funding: just getting the team to an opponent would cost at least £10,000.
It became clear that the only way to continue football development was with assistance from the game’s governing body. However, there was one major initial stumbling block: Pohnpei isn’t a country. While the Micro Games allows islands to compete individually, in order to be seen as anything more than a club team in the eyes of Fifa, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Yap and Kosrae, would need to be united, even though they are separated by nearly a million square miles of ocean with flights between any two costing in excess of £500 per person each way.
The Federated States of Micronesia had fielded a united team before. In 2003, a Micronesian team based in Yap assembled to compete in the South Pacific Games. They were led by an Israeli coach, Shimon Shenhar, who had come to the islands as a ‘gift’ in return for Micronesia’s political support for Israel. Players from Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap were included in a squad that went to Fiji relishing the prospect of international competition. At the South Pacific Games, Micronesia came up against teams that were 15 or 20 years further ahead in their development. They were beaten mercilessly, losing 10-0 to Papua New Guinea, 7-0 to Tonga, 18-0 to New Caledonia and 17-0 to Tahiti. Shenhar left and the united FSM team went back to their islands. The score lines should have come as no surprise to a fledgling football nation – almost every small country has to take its share of thrashings to become competitive – but the legacy of the South Pacific Games humblings was to prove devastating.
In 2010, I contacted the other islands and found that football was still being played in Chuuk and Yap. In Yap, the US Olympic Committee man Paul Lane had fought hard to get football back up and running after years of neglect. The small, traditional and beautiful island had been the most active footballing island of the four for years, but interest in the sport fell away as basketball swept in. Lane had ushered in a new era of passion for football with school leagues and the pristine Yap Sports Complex was full of life on game days. On Chuuk, a veteran of the last united FSM team, Curtis Graham, was running the sport. He happily reminisced about the 2002 South Pacific Games and stressed that while the results hurt a little, the players had believed them to be a necessary part of their learning curve. The authorities had disagreed and couldn’t see the point in investing in a game that requires 16 flights to compete abroad when they had a better shot at glory in individual sports.
Back on Pohnpei, the players were getting restless and the idea of a tour to Guam was mooted. Guam is seen as the big brother of Micronesia’s islands. A US territory, Guam has shot up the Fifa Rankings in recent years, inspired by excellent coaching – currently from the highly rated English coach Gary White – good administration and millions of dollars of Fifa money. The Guam FA was encouraging when approached and agreed to host a Pohnpei team in October 2010, leaving just the small issue of the £10,000 worth of flights. The saviour came in the form of a London-based cargo airline, Coyne Airways, whose football-loving owner Larry Coyne offered to finance the tour as an act of philanthropy. As a result, a squad of 16 players, most of whom had never left the island, went to Guam and even managed to win a game, hammering a Guam Second Division side 7-1. It wasn’t exactly revenge for the 16-1 of 1998, but it was Pohnpei’s first ever victory in a competitive match.
Matt and I returned to lives in England but before we did we helped set up a new Federated States of Micronesia Football Association, run by representatives from each of the islands and led by president Steve Finnen, a US lawyer who has become an honorary Pohnpeian for his years helping the community. The new FA’s first goal was obvious –become part of Fifa. The process of joining Fifa begins with being admitted to one of the regional confederations. After two years in a confederation, full Fifa membership becomes possible. Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Oceania Football Confederation was the obvious first port of call. The OFC lists 11 member nations, but since Australia left for the East Asia Football Federation (EAFF), it has struggled to maintain its relevance. Tai Nicholas, the secretary general, was encouraging, but he admitted that the FSM would be better served following the route that Guam took and going to the Asian Football Confederation via EAFF. This was slightly at odds with the OFC’s public position that it has a ‘long term plan to develop football on all Pacific islands’, but the honesty was appreciated.
The Federated States of Micronesia FA sent a message to the EAFF beginning the application process for associate membership in early 2011. A number of documents were produced, painstaking protocol followed and then the FSM’s football officials waited. Eventually a message arrived stating that the first stage of the process would be a site visit from an EAFF official to ascertain the state of the game and its facilities in Micronesia. A date was set and then cancelled, set again and then cancelled. It appeared at some stages that the visiting party wasn’t too sure of the geography of Micronesia or which island to visit. In the meantime, football continued to grow throughout FSM and the Olympic Committee chief Jim Tobin put plans in place for football to be included in the Micro Games in Pohnpei in 2014. The hope was that an official would come and watch those games in place of the cancelled site visits, but the invitation was politely declined. Even with Finnen, an experienced lawyer, and the Olympic Committee fighting the cause, the process remains difficult, so what chance do islands without such skilled administrators have?
Tuvalu, Palau and Kiribati: playing but stuck in limbo
The problems Micronesia has faced are all too familiar to fellow island nations that have gone in search of Fifa recognition. The tiny island of Tuvalu has been trying to gain acceptance for 26 years with only moderate success. Space is at a premium on Tuvalu’s main island, so much so that the football pitch is adjacent to the airport runway. Nonetheless, football championships are played with a passion and Tuvalu is an associate member of the OFC. Associate members are in a waiting room for full membership – they get some financial assistance, although this can vary, but they can’t enter Fifa competitions. However, in 2007 Tuvalu played in the Pacific Games, which double up as World Cup qualifiers, making Tuvalu the first nation to take part in qualification for a competition they weren’t eligible to enter. Tuvalu also played at the 2011 Pacific Games where they beat the Fifa members American Samoa 4-0 and even drew with Guam, but no change in status occurred. Since 2008, Tuvalu’s bid for the promised land of Fifa has had an unexpected champion in the form of a Dutch group called the Dutch Support Tuvalu Foundation. Inspired by the Tuvalu football association president’s visit to Fifa in 2008, the Dutchman Paul Driessen made it his mission to get Tuvalu into Fifa. The group managed to raise a phenomenal sum of around £150,000 and brought a Tuvalu team to the Netherlands for a three-month tour at the end of 2013. Tuvalu acquitted themselves well on the pitch, although some players struggled with the lengthy stay in Europe, and the hope was that Fifa would take notice.
However, Fifa rejected Tuvalu’s latest advances. The nation didn’t qualify in part because it wasn’t equipped to host a home game – for one thing it didn’t have the necessary five-star hotel. Besides, Fifa insisted, some of the paperwork wasn’t filled out properly, so they’d have to start again. Aside from the bureaucracy, Tuvalu had a right to feel aggrieved, as American Samoa and East Timor received full Fifa membership and millions in funding before they ever hosted a match.
The remote 33-island chain of Kiribati also felt the goal posts were moved during their attempt to get accepted into Fifa. After two years of correspondence, the FA chief Ioteba Redfearn insists that Fifa told him Kiribati couldn’t qualify until it had a national championship, which is no mean feat when dealing with so many atolls. It also seemed unfair given that several member nations don’t have leagues, including Liechtenstein, which only has a Cup competition. An associate member of OFC, Kiribati spoke to the Scottish Uefa A-Licence coach Kevin McGreskin, who was willing to help coach the team for a friendly fixture, but Fifa rejected the request to fund his visit. Instead they sent 300 footballs. Kiribati entered the 2011 Pacific Games in a bid to prove their credentials, but despite some respectable performances their 17-1 drubbings by Papua New Guinea and Tahiti only served to undermine their campaign.
Football programmes in the region remain fragile and are often dependent on one or two passionate people who take the game with them when they leave. Almost nobody in the Pacific is paid to develop football and the process of jumping through hoops for suited men in Switzerland is a baffling one for many of the people entrusted with taking the game forward on their islands. The main theme is that countries in the region have received different feedback and everyone has their theory on what needs to be done to appease the Fifa god. Most nations are happy to wait years for replies rather than rattle cages and risk offending the powers that be.
Several years ago, the FA chairman Geoff Thompson persuaded Fifa to set up the Small Nations Working Group working with Urs Klusner, who was in charge of development for Fifa. The group’s raison d’être was to help the little places around the world cut through the red tape and get assistance. Thompson and Klusner visited Tuvalu, the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten and Jersey. A report they compiled apparently identified Tuvalu and Kiribati as worthy of development but wrote off Micronesia as unfeasible. After that they disbanded. The Committee was never replaced and it is currently not obvious whose role it is to help nations who want to climb the first rung on the ladder of development.
Fifa is understandably wary of pumping money into small islands of which it has no knowledge. Palau was an associate member of OFC in 2002 but that appears to have expired through a lack of activity, even though football continues to be played regularly, led by the passionate Charles Mitchell, who fought hard to raise money to take a team to Pohnpei this summer. Fifa appears so worried it will finance a non-existent football programme that a bizarre Catch 22 has emerged whereby development money is suspended for not being able to use it. Niue on the other hand remains an associate member of OFC although reports suggest there is almost no organised football on the island. The French territory of Wallis and Futuna played 20 matches at South Pacific Games between 1966 and 1995 and were sometimes listed as an associate of the OFC, but the organisation didn’t even have a working phone number for the island’s FA for years.
The simple fact is that the region is a minefield for Fifa. Many of the nations are groups of remote islands, like Micronesia, where costs of travelling between them are exorbitant. Paperwork slips through the net in these communities and emails go unanswered. However, football is not only being played but it is thriving in a region of the world where obesity is a massive problem and athletic opportunities are scarce. At present it seems that Fifa’s plan is simply to stall and hope that island football programmes go away, but Tuvalu keeps plugging away, Kiribati sporadically pipes up and Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia are more active than ever. Development in the Pacific is a challenging, expensive and possibly thankless task that cannot be justified economically but Fifa, at least in principle, isn’t a business, it’s an NGO. And after all, Fifa develops football everywhere.