There have been countless curious articles on how China and India, with their billion-plus population, can’t become football’s powerful nations.
But when it comes to this game, size isn’t everything.
India is trying desperately to make the I-league a truly national football league and not just a tournament for Goa, Mumbai, Kolkata and a few other regions. China has been struggling in its attempts to persuade hundreds of millions of children (or perhaps, it is more accurate to say, their parents) that playing football is a good way to spend time.
Guam has few such problems. The island is very small and very beautiful. It is a US-administered territory in the Pacific Ocean but in football terms, Guam is making great strides. It is part of the East Asian regional federation along with major powers that are Japan and South Korea. A population of only 160,000 is not necessarily a hindrance. Sometimes, small is not only beautiful but can make things a good deal easier.
We have a 10-year plan. We want to be the fifth strongest nation in East Asia
In 2008, Guam was 201st in the FIFA rankings, seventh from the bottom. By February 2014, it was sitting alongside India and Indonesia at 160th.
The country has big ambitions: it wants to be part of the Asian Cup, a dream that has come closer to reality as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced that, from 2019, the tournament will be expanded to 24 teams from the current 16-team format.
“We have a 10-year plan,” Gary White, national team’s English coach, told Al Jazeera. “We want to be the fifth strongest nation in East Asia – above Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mongolia (and behind only Japan, China and the two Koreas). We are close in terms of the strength of the national team but we want to be there in overall football structure from top to bottom.”
Guam’s football structure is impressive in comparison to its size but it is that size that can help the installation and development of its structure.
“It is a small country so you can get players together easily and there is no political stress when dealing with clubs. Everybody is on the same page with our long-term development plan.”
White, 37 but a graduate of the English FA’s highly rated Elite Coaching course, believes that as football become bigger, it may be harder to keep everyone pushing in the same direction. It is not just a case of ‘build it and they will come’.
Guam had to give the children of the island, and their parents, a reason to attend the national academy.
“We tell young players that if they come and play, we will help them go to the US and get a scholarship,” White added. “This is our message for the 150 kids aged eight to 14 that come during the week. They come after school and do their homework here under the tutors’ supervision, eat a nutritious meal and then play football. It is starting to work. Two went [to the US] last year and more will go this year.”
The programme requires money and Guam has done it systematically. The Japan FA as well as local sponsors have provided the funds. And the FA President Richard Lai has used the cash to build facilities and hire young talent like White.
Football is growing globally every second. All of us have to work hard and continue to build a better football for our federation
Power at the table
And while Guam punches above its weight on the pitch, it does the same off it. Lai has become a powerful figure in Asian football politics. He sits on the Asian Football Confederation’s Executive Committee and is the chairman of the body’s finance committee. He denies that he has become influential at the AFC, preferring to focus on behind-the-scenes development.
“I work hard with my fellow Executive Committee members to improve the AFC,” Lai said. “That’s what all of us have to do. Football is growing globally every second. All of us have to work hard and continue to build a better football for our federation.
“My role is to help prove to Asian football that even Guam, the smallest member association in terms of population and funding, can improve the level of the sport by hard work and taking the opportunities that FIFA and AFC provide. Improvement comes from hard work and good development plans.”
His plan sounds simple but it is a concept that plenty of bigger countries have struggled to grasp. Guam may have a thing or two to teach the giants.