Play Up Pohnpei!Posted: July 5, 2012
Taking on the job of managing the team officially ranked as the world’s worst sounds like a challenge you might set yourself on Football Manager, right? Well Paul Watson made it a reality when he made an 8,000 mile journey along with his friend Matt Conrad from London to coach the small, remote island of Pohnpei.
Initially, Watson had intended to go to Pohnpei to play for them, but due to strict citizenship laws on the island that plan was ruled out, but after meetings in London with a former inhabitant of the island, he discovered that he could coach the National side without having to be a citizen.
When the Bristol City fan arrived in Pohnpei, he discovered his job was much harder than anticipated. The national team had dispanded due to embarrassment of being branded as the worst team in the world, there was no league, the obesity rate was ridiculously high and there was little interest in sport which really narrowed the pool of potential players available to him.
Due to a lack of funding, it was difficult to even find suitable facilities. One football pitch was on a slope, while the other was on marshland. The only location the team could train in was a gym above a pig pen. Things soon began to look up however, as Paul’s brother Mark, who is a stand-up comedian, staged a benefit gig to raise funds for the team and a sponsor came in at the last minute to pump some money into the project, the cargo company Coyne Airways whose sponsorship helped the team finally embark on its very first international tour in 2010.
They narrowly lost three games out of four they played, but that fourth game was a landmark moment for Pohnpei as they recorded a 7-1 victory over Guam side Crushers, the first time they had ever won a game and lifted them off the foot of the FIFA rankings.
It’s a heartwarming story really, to overcome so many obstacles that stood in their way and still go onto achieve what they set out to do, and nowadays football is played on a much more regular basis on the Micronesian island.
I think Paul said it better than anyone else could referred to them as “not the world’s worst team anymore – just the world’s biggest underdogs.”
I was so intrigued by his story, I contacted Paul in hope of talking to him about his time as coach of Pohnpei and he kindly agreed to talk to us. Here is the interview.
So tell us, how does a man from London end up managing a small Micronesian island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
I was working as a football journalist and playing semi-professional football and I realised that I would never live my dream of playing for England or even my team Bristol City. At the time I was living with my friend Matt Conrad and we came up with the idea of finding the weakest international team in the world and playing for them instead.
Was there much of an interview process for the Phonpei job?
It was very important that we got on with the secretary-general of the Federated States of Micronesia Olympic Committee. He’s called Jim Tobin and he really believed in the potential for football on the island, so he was very supportive and that made the job possible.
You arrived in a country that has a massive obesity rate and has its own drug and alcohol problems which obviously lead to a limited talent pool as if it wasn’t small enough already. Were you aware the job you were taking on would be this tough?
I knew that there would be challenges, but perhaps I didn’t quite foresee exactly how difficult they would be to tackle. I think that looking at somewhere like Pohnpei on paper it’s easy to imagine that they didn’t have a successful team because of a lack of knowledge but actually it was much more down to the climate and the lack of funding for sporting infrastructure.
There was no League in Pohnpei when you arrived. I suppose its fair to say football wasn’t a popular sport there when you arrived?
There had been a wave of interest in football across Micronesia during the 1990s and early 2000s, but after a series of defeats on the international stage, funding had disappeared and the sport had died out. The main sports on the island remain basketball, baseball and volleyball as well as track and field, which is boosted by the possibility of athletes competing at the Olympics – a lure that football could never have.
After eventually setting up a League, you then moved your attention to the International team with the best players from the League going into the squad. What sort of training facilities did you have to work with over there?
We had one pitch that was often flooded and then outside of that I started to introduce gym work. There was a small, rusty old gym in the upstairs of someone’s house that we used to go and use. I taught the players to do circuits of sports-specific exercises. The only problem was that the gym had no walls, so when it rained we all got pretty wet and it was above a pigpen so it didn’t smell too great. Outside of that we would run along the Causeway, which is the long road that connects the island to the Airport. In those hot conditions that was a pretty good workout itself.
After much work getting funds and sponsorship, Pohnpei finally set out on their first ever International tour to face fellow Polynesian islands. How significant a step was this is in terms of progress for football on the island?
I think it was a huge step getting a team to Guam. It allowed a group of talented young athletes to have an incredible learning experience, plus it showed the other islanders that football was a sport that could lead somewhere. We also wanted to show the Guam Football Association how serious and professional we were as a team so they could see that football was growing on Pohnpei and they might support us in trying to get the Federated States of Micronesia into the East Asian Football Federation and qualifying for grants.
On this tour you guided Pohnpei to their first ever International win over Guam. How big was this win for the people of Pohnpei?
e actually beat a Guam club team called the Crushers 7-1, which was Pohnpei’s first win in a competitive match. It meant so much to our players and also to the Pohnpeians living in Guam who turned out to watch. It was a truly historic moment for them.
Did you receive any help from clubs back home in England or contact managers for advice?
I made a lot of appeals for help, not least to the FA but I was largely ignored. The only team that did help were Yeovil Town who allowed me to come and watch one of their training sessions and the manager at the time Terry Skiverton gave me some good advice. We also got some kit from Yeovil and Norwich.
Was a potential friendly against an English side ever on the cards? I’m sure even a team from the lower reaches of English football would be considered a ‘glamour friendly’ for the Pohnpei team?
From time to time someone would contact me asking about playing against us but quite soon after they would ask whether our FA could pay for their flights. Given that our budget was my overdraft plus £2000 from the Olympic Committee it wasn’t very likely to happen. I think one of the biggest problems for us was a lack of anyone to play against to keep things fresh. From time to time some sailors from a boat would turn up or the US coastguard but it was tough to find motivation to keep playing the opponents. Any foreign opponents would have been a real novelty but I doubt the players would have cared much if it was Aldershot or Arsenal seeing as they didn’t watch any English football.
I’d imagine you still follow the League and International team over there. Have they made any further progress since your time there?
Participation in football has grown and the league is now bigger than ever before with six teams. There are also more young players competing in schools. The game has spread to the other Micronesian islands of Yap and Chuuk and there is now a central Football Association trying to get recognition. We started making these steps when I was there as we realised that to be recognsied as a country we would need to compete as the Federated States of Micronesia rather than just Pohnpei, which is a state.
Will we see Pohnpei playing World Cup Qualifiers any time soon?
My hope is that the Federated States of Micronesia could be in a World Cup qualifier within 10 or 15 years. They will first need to be accepted by the East Asian Football Federation though.
You are currently working in Sports Journalism. Do you think you’ll ever get back into coaching?
I do bits and pieces of journalism but am really focusing on writing my second book. I’m doing one project that might involve some coaching but on the whole I’m not too bothered about it any more. The whole Pohnpei experience allowed me to take stock of what’s really important to me and football isn’t a priority these days.
And finally. If the BOIP team were to go on a summer holiday. Would you recommend Pohnpei as a holiday destination? If so what would the island hold for us?
Pohnpei is a fantastic place. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and the people are the friendliest you could wish to meet. It has some of the best surfing in the world, the holiday island of Nahlap that is a completely deserted desert island you can have to yourself, the ancient ruined city of Nan Madol is like Stonehenge on water with a really odd magical feel to it. Nightlife is a bit scarce though with just two bars but they are good ones! If you can afford the £2000 flights I’d strongly recommend it!