Dubai: Micronesia’s national football team made international headlines this week when they crashed out of the Pacific Games after losing 30-0 to Tahiti, 38-0 to Fiji and 46-0 to Vanuatu.
Most would give up after a cumulative 114 goal thrashing but British coach Paul Watson, who managed Pohnpei, one of the islands that make up Micronesia from 2009 to 2010, is drawing positives from the defeats.
Micronesia aren’t recognised by Fifa, which means they aren’t eligible for funding and can’t compete in major tournaments. But Watson is hoping to change that using awareness gained from their recent battering to petition the world football body to incorporate the islands. You can sign the petition here: chn.ge/1NRylcb. Watson explains Micronesia’s plight to Gulf News.
Gulf News: How can a team lose so heavily in an international competition?
Paul Watson: The fact Micronesia was even at the Pacific Games was a near miracle and owed so much to years of hard work from the country’s unpaid coaches, players and administrators. Micronesia was the only nation at the Games not to receive any development funding from Fifa. Having applied to be part of the East Asian Football Federation back in 2010, Micronesia has been waiting ever since and entering the tournament was a way to show the powers that be that Micronesia is dedicated to football development. The results were essentially a necessary sacrifice. They were also inevitable when you compare a nation with four islands separated by thousands of miles that must compete as one, despite not having the funding to even fly players between islands, against nations that receive $100,000 (Dh367,000) plus every year and have done so for many years.
What else are the players up against?
The climate is one of the wettest on earth and pitches are often flooded and there are no indoor football facilities. There’s also a lack of qualified coaches on the islands. It’s almost impossible to attract anyone because there’s no money for a salary or even to pay their flights, which cost around $2000 from the US or Europe. Micronesia has around 100,000 people split between four islands – Pohnpei, Yap, Chuuk and Kosrae. It has one of the highest obesity rates on earth largely due to the prevalence of imported Japanese and American junk food in the diet, which is often the only food families can afford or know how to cook. Sakau and betel nut are very popular, they essentially numb the senses and are used everyday. Sakau is a drink that acts as an anaesthetic and betel nut is a chew that is mixed with lime to slow the senses. On the islands talented young athletes often get bored and turn to drugs because they don’t feel there’s a route forward from sport.
What’s the aim of your petition?
The crucial next stage of development in the region is to be given development assistance from Fifa via the East Asian Football Federation. The presence of qualified coaches on each of the islands for a sustained period would have a massive effect and make football self-sufficient quickly rather than relying on foreigners. Fifa have been completely in their rights to be cautious. They can’t just hand out money to small islands without checking they are genuinely trying to develop the game. But now Micronesia has really shown emphatically that it is. You can do no more than enter the tournaments you are allowed to enter. The 46-0 thrashing was a statement of intent – Micronesia is willing to do whatever it takes, however painful, so that future generations can play. They aren’t allowed to enter World Cup qualifiers or the East Asian Federation Championship, which has the likes of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, their neighbours. They can enter events Fifa isn’t running but actually they wouldn’t be allowed to qualify for the Olympics even though Micronesia is in the IOC because you also need Fifa backing. Most crucially Micronesia can only turn up to competitions if they can fund it themselves because they have no development assistance. They have to rely on their Olympic Committee who provided the funds for the Pacific Games. It’s a rare situation shared by Tuvalu and Kiribati. As Micronesia is so remote it costs at least $30,000 to get a team to most competitions, even if they are allowed, and that kind of money is very hard to come by.
Why should the rest of the world care whether Micronesia gets Fifa recognition or not?
I see Micronesia as a microcosm for world football as a whole. Football should be for everyone, that’s the point in Fifa competition. Wherever in the world you are born your nation should be able to compete, even if they get thrashed. At the moment Micronesia isn’t being given a chance so it has to turn up to competitions where the odds are stacked against them. With just a little development money Fifa could make a massive difference, as they have done in nearby Guam [who recently beat India 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier], and change the lives of many people.