TOKYO: Once the whipping boys of Asian football, the tiny Pacific island of Guam has struck a blow for the underdog by reaching the final round of Asian Cup qualifiers.
More famous for its sun-kissed beaches and coral reefs, Guam’s giant-killing antics overshadow even Leicester City’s title surge in the English Premier League, according to their English coach Gary White.
“For me, we are the world’s most improved team,” White told Agence France-Presse in a telephone interview on Friday.
“When you look at resources, professional player pools, history, population, I don’t think there’s a country in the world who’s done what we’ve done.
“Everyone talks about Leicester City doing so well but they spent millions in the transfer market,” he added. “Every team we go up against, we are totally the underdogs. Every game is a total mismatch but we’ve shown that if you have the desire you can achieve anything.”
Guam, which has a population of just 170,000 and is ranked 154th in the world, finished fourth in Group D in the second round of Asia’s World Cup qualifying competition with seven points from eight games, having been top after the first two games.
White’s “Matao” — a name derived from the noble classes of Micronesia’s ancient Chamorro society — still have the chance to reach the continent’s showcase tournament for the first time by qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
“It really is an amazing achievement that the smallest country in Asia has reached the final of Asian Cup qualifiers,” said White, who took charge in 2012.
“I look back at what we’ve done and I have to catch myself because it really has been a whirlwind in terms of how everything has changed—not just on the pitch but how football has changed in the country.
“It’s now the most popular sport and we’ve got kids all dreaming of being the next Matao players. It’s really kick-started football’s development.”
Traditional war cry
Such is Guam’s progress under White that last week’s controversial 1-0 defeat in Oman still hurts.
“We are a little disappointed,” said the 41-year-old. “It was a very even game decided by a blatant offside. I was just proud of the players that we can go to Oman, which is a quality team, and come out of there disappointed we didn’t get a draw.”
Guam has consistently punched above their weight, recording victories against Turkmenistan and India, a country of 1.2 billion.
By far the smallest of Asia’s 47 national and territorial teams, the state of football in the tiny United States enclave was so precarious barely a generation ago that the islanders did not even bother entering the World Cup qualifiers.
When they did, they would often get buried in an avalanche of goals.
But White, who formerly played for English non-league club Bognor Regis, has worked a minor miracle on the palm-fringed honeymoon island of Guam, located 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) south of Japan.
“If you get into the Asian Cup it shows you’re a top team,” he said. “It would be a wonderful validation for everybody’s work over many years.”
Guam’s players perform the traditional “inifresi” war cry — the island’s version of New Zealand’s rugby haka — before games to fire themselves up.
“Our players have really shown what the Chamorro spirit is all about,” said White. “They have really put Guam football on the map.”
How long White himself will stay with Guam, however, remains to be seen.
“Guam has such a place in my heart it will always be difficult to leave,” he said. “But if the right opportunity came along for my own career then I would have to look at it seriously.”