Pohnpei: Football's Ultimate Underdogs
Determined to fulfil a boyhood dream of playing international football, Paul Watson went searching for a minnow team that would provide an easy path to a national cap. But in discovering the remote Pacific island of Pohnpei, who's side was dubbed 'the worst in the world', Paul found himself on a new quest: to coach a national football team.
> EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
JAMES: I’m James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.
JAMES: If you’ve ever played the computer game Football Manager, at one point you might have sought a very particular challenge; find the smallest, most obscure club or nation you can, and try to take a minnow football team to ultimate glory. It’s a fun fantasy in the vast digital world that a game like this provides - but for two English football fans, fantasy wasn’t enough. They wanted to do this for real.
PAUL: You know, we trawled through the FIFA rankings, got to the very bottom - at the time, it was Montserrat and Bhutan, and those kind of teams. And that was when we found the non FIFA rankings, you know places that aren't recognized by FIFA. So that was the point where we thought “well you know, if anywhere, this is our place”.
JAMES: This is Paul Watson. In 2008, Paul and his flatmate Matthew Conrad were reflecting on their footballing dreams, wondering what life could have been like if they had made it in the professional game. Initially, it wasn’t about coaching at all. Like many fans, they had always wanted to play football at the highest level they could.
PAUL: We would sit around in the evenings and kind of watch Brazilian Second Division football, and sort of lament our lack of talent. And one day, like a lot of fans probably around the world, we came up with the thing of saying, “well, what team could we have played for, if we'd been born there?”, you know if we'd had a bit of luck and we'd been born in San Marino, would we be playing for them now?
JAMES: Aspirations of football stardom are not uncommon for young fans growing up, but for Paul, he probably took it to heart, a little more than most.
PAUL: My first passion was that I would play for England, you know, that was the dream. And while most people kind of grew up - probably about the age of 10, they realized that wasn't going to happen - I sort of clung onto that dream, that one day I'd play football. And maybe not for England, but you know, maybe I'd make it a kind of fourth or fifth division club. Despite not having any talent, really. No, no discernible sort of natural talent.
PAUL: I just kept plugging away at it. And, you know, as the years went on, it got less and less likely, it was probably impossible by the age of 10, but it was absolutely impossible by the age of 18. But I sort of found myself drifting, and became a football journalist because I wanted to sort of stay close to the game. But I was still playing at a very low, kind of semi professional, straight amateur level in London.
PAUL: And at the age of 25, you know, still had this vague hope that one day I would make it in this kind of fairytale way that people do every now and again. And that's basically where this idea was born from, this kind of desire to beat the odds and not to give up on my dream of playing international football.
JAMES: So Paul and Matt are learning about all these nations that aren't recognised by FIFA, and way down the rankings, one place in particular grabs their attention.
PAUL: At the bottom of that was this island, Pohnpei. And they were listed as the world's worst team, you know, Wikipedia told us, they’d never won a game. So what we did was we sent them an email, to the address that we could find for them. And that was it. That was supposed to be the end of it. But it was only actually when their head of their FA got back to us and said, “You know, I'd love to help you but I've just moved to London”, that we thought “well, okay, this is, this is kind of strange, it's probably a prank, but we'll meet up with him”.
JAMES: Their contact was Charles Musana, a Ugandan who had spent 15 years on the island of Pohnpei, playing and coaching football.
PAUL: And he said to us - basically you know, he could see the passion was in the right place, even if the even if the plan was stupid. He said, “look, you can't go there and play. It's harder to get a Micronesian nationality than it is to get a British one.” You know, you have to renounce your citizenship of your country, you have to marry a local - even then it's hard to get a passport. But he said. you know, “why wouldn't don't you come over and coach? The team is basically disbanded, so come over and coach the team”. And I think he thought we'd laugh about that and go home. But instead we said yes.
JAMES: The guys were serious, and they began planning how they’d actually make this happen.
PAUL: It was a good sort of 13 months till we actually were able to leave because you know, we had to save up money, we had to give up jobs.
James: Was there any point where you’re like, “what are we doing? This is ridiculous. '' Because I think sometimes when people, you know, have a crazy idea, and really they have to act on it really quickly, otherwise reality sets in and you go, “actually, no, this isn’t a great decision”. But you had quite a lot of time to think about it, so why did you keep pursuing that and why did that still seem like a good idea at the time, over those many months?
PAUL: It's a really good question. A lot of people say, you know, “was it a drunk idea?”. And fair enough, even if it had been, as you say, that's gone the next day and you move on. But this had months and months of having to think you know, “is this actually something you want to do?”. But for me, one of the drivers was that through journalism I had found myself in a job I didn't particularly like, I found like I wasn't able to do the bit of football that I enjoyed. And also the hours were bad, the pay was bad, I was working at home. So I was I was in a place where I was quite disillusioned with my career.
PAUL: And as I say, like I still was wanting to sort of play these sort of horrible Saturday afternoon games in basically parks in London, getting kicked and you know, I wasn't exactly living the best football life that I could be. So for me it became a real thing, that I thought, you know, “let's get my teeth into it, let's make this the chance that I wanted, to really do something I enjoyed through football.
James: So through this process, have you like, told friends and family and are people supporting you in this? Or are people just thinking; one, you’re crazy or two, they don’t actually think you’re going to go through with it?
PAUL: It was kind of a mix. But you'd be surprised how most people actually were supportive. And most people not even that surprised I think, because obviously they hadn't exactly expected to hear that I was planning to go to a Micronesian island for an indefinite period of time. But I think people knew that I was I was kind of a bit bored of my current job, and that I felt a little bit like I couldn't work out what to do with life. I think people almost were a bit relieved that I had found something to show a passionate in. It helps my brother's a stand up comedian. So it's not like he took a very - my older brother took a very unconventional path, and it worked very well for him.
PAUL: And so consulting him, you know, I didn't get that kind of, you know, “you need to look out for your future, you need to do something solid”, advice. He just thought it was great. And more strange, perhaps, is that my long term girlfriend and now wife, amazingly, Lizzie, basically said “you should do this”, you know, “it's something you want to do, and if you don't do this, now, you're never going to get a chance to”. So you know, she was totally behind me, which I think is something people still don't quite believe. But genuinely, she never tried to talk me out of it once, which certainly helped.
PAUL: I mean, it was one of those things. It felt like it was what I had to do at that time, and I still can't properly explain it. But it was almost like a - this was the thing that my whole life have been setting up to do, in a way. Because I'd always loved obscure football growing up, getting, you know, obsessed by more and more obscure football teams. And then had just not found something within conventional football. And it just felt like, “well, you know what, this is, this is something that no one else is doing, and that really suits my personality, I guess.
PAUL: Crazy as it might seem, the thing I was most worried about, that gave me sleepless nights, was that someone would get their first. I had this nightmare that we would turn up and there'd be some sort of like, like some jobbing in English manager, like, you know, like John Ward or someone out there. I’d think “oohh” [sighs], you know, we would obviously be completely out of our depth, and we’d just have to go home with our tails between our legs. But honestly, that was my biggest worry was if we don't get there now, someone's going to get there first. And that'll be terrible.
JAMES: So, where exactly is Pohnpei and what were Paul and Matt heading into?
PAUL: Pohnpei’s sort of in the middle of nowhere, is basically the best way to describe it. It’s in the middle of Pacific Ocean, between Manila and sort of Australia, I guess. You're looking towards Guam - I always try and direct people via Guam, but nobody really knows where that is in the UK, certainly - so you know, it's one of a chain of islands, absolutely in the middle of the ocean and it feels that way. It's - your flight route from London is; London-Dubai, Dubai-Manila, Manila-Guam, Guam-Pohnpei. So you're a long way into the ocean.
PAUL: It's a US protectorate, so it has a bit of a US feel to it, uses the Dollar. But in many ways, it's it's a tropical paradise, you know, it's this incredible, shocking greenery and beautiful blue ocean. It's absolutely stunning. The Pohnpeian’s have sort of - they've been invaded on numerous occasions, and obviously during the Second World War, there was a lot of fighting around that region. So they've had substantial influence over the years from the Spanish, the Japanese, the Germans. But they’ve retain this incredibly fierce sense of identity, which I think is most, sort of marked by just the friendliness, it’s just such a friendly island. Everyone nods to everyone, it's incredibly laid back. You drive at about 10 miles an hour, and and you swear around all the potholes. And it's about 35 degrees, it's hot the whole time - as someone from England, you feel like you're melting the whole time. And then it will rain like it's the end of the world most days as well.
PAUL: So for me it was like, it was an amazing place, a beautiful place. But also you know, a place that obviously has had its problems. And I think it's quite well demonstrated as you go round Pohnpei, it’s stunning beauty to your left and your right. And then there's, there's kind of litter everywhere a lot of the time. And that sums up Pohnpei in some ways, it's like a faulted paradise. But you come to understand it better as you are there longer.
JAMES: As remote as Pohnpei is, an island paradise does sound rather appealing. But Paul and Matt weren’t exactly going on holiday. And as they learned more about Pohnpei and its people, coaching a football team in this part of the world was going to be a significant challenge.
PAUL: We knew as much as someone can know, when they've got a computer with internet access; we knew about the high obesity rate, high diabetes rates. We knew that they had played football, there had been sporadic football programs that have gone quite far, sort of within the region. That they'd lost 16-1 to Guam a few years previously, and that that had seemed to basically knock the enthusiasm out of people in the region. So I mean, what we'd actually established, was actually these were the key things that we were going to face.
PAUL: And all these things at the time, we kind of took them and we learnt them. But they didn't mean anything. It was only later on, when you actually came to the challenges face on, that you started to realise exactly why they were so difficult. And why, you know, if a team is, seen as the worst in the world, it was a bit of a meaningless title. But you know, if a team is struggling so badly to make football work, there's probably a pretty good reason for that. And I think it was, it was one of those things where in retrospect, all these little nuggets come together and you think, “Wow, that's why things are so difficult”, in terms of football there.
JAMES: On top of all these barriers in their way, the guys had never even coached football before, but staying true to their dream, they decided to at least make the trip out to Pohnpei and assess the situation. And fortunately, their contact Charles Musana offered to help them.
PAUL: He agreed that he would come with us on our first trip out there. And he would introduce us to all the key people who could help us get things back moving again. So he was getting messages from the island saying, you know, “people are excited there are foreign coaches coming over”, you know, “they're really all playing again, it's all getting going”.
PAUL: I don't know how true that was now looking back at it. But I know that he believed you know, that this news that to English coaches, obviously, they didn't quite realise how unprofessional we were but they thought, you know “well okay, this is obviously a reason to get going again.”
PAUL: And so Charles accompanied us when we did make this first trip. We were doing three weeks there. We were going to meet all the key people. And we were going to see if we think it's going to work. And if it's going to work for them and if it's going to work for us. It was almost like a sort of extended job interview, except it wasn't really clear who was going to give us the job. So we thought “we'll do this trip and we'll see”, you know, “is this something we can imagine working? ”. And then we have the option to come home - albeit without a job anymore, and having made a lot of sort of quite serious - you know, I got rid of my flat, I didn't have a job anymore. And I told everyone I know, I was moving to Micronesia. It would have been embarrassing, but I was ready that, you know, we had a get-out. So we did this trip of three weeks. And it was the sort of that trip I think that was the make or break, and that was where we saw, we saw the potential was there and that, you know, we would be supported.
JAMES: Upon arriving in Pohnpei, Paul and Matt began to make connections, meet the locals and get a sense of just how things would work on the ground.
PAUL: We met the head of the Olympic Committee in Micronesia, called Jim Tobin, a really amazing American man who's administrated sport there for years. And he really got behind us, which was a big thing. The Olympic Committee in a place that small is a big deal. So he was behind us. And we were going down to the field every day, and just seeing, you know what level of interest there was. And it would range, you know, some days we had a five-on-five kick around on this sort of flooded field.
PAUL: Other days, it would sort of get up to sort of 20 people kicking around. Some days, we'd arrange everyone to turn up at six - they’d get there at eight, you know, you just - it was a mess. And it was clearly, you know it was disorganized, it was informal. But there was interest, and there were kids coming out and kicking a football who'd never done it before, there was some who were actually, clearly really good, and they’d played before.
JAMES: As for the facilities, they certainly weren’t ideal. They would use the football pitch at Pacific Island Community School, which, despite its picturesque surroundings, really suffered due to the weather.
PAUL: The kind of rain that I looked at in theory and thought “oh that’ll be fine”. I got there and realised that in a football capacity, that is not really very manageable. It definitely limited our ability to play sort of Guardiola style football, that the field was effectively water most of the time. Kind of like a marsh, in that there were toads. It was a toad habitat, so they were toads everywhere.
JAMES: Then, when their three weeks on the island were up, Paul and Matt had to make a decision.
PAUL: So we got to this point where we were leaving the island for this trip. And we had to make a decision at some point whether we were coming back or not.
JAMES: For Matt, that decision was taken out of his hands. He had gotten into film school - something he’d always wanted to do. But for Paul…
PAUL: And so I was left in London with this decision of you know, “do I go back on my own?”. And I did go back. And that kind of was the hard decision, in a way, but I felt I'd already made it. So I went back and this was to be the more permanent move. You know, this was the decision to take this on as the job really.
James: Right. And so the Federation has agreed to pay you and kinda set you up and all that as well?
PAUL: No, there was no pay. That was the thing. In a way, this was the hardest thing. There was no salary. There's no real official job title. I mean, there was not really an FA. So I mean, the Olympic Committee recognising what we were doing is all we had, so we had to form an FA again. It effectively was reformed with the people there who were big football fans, we reformed an FA. And then we were effectively Pohnpei’s coaches.
PAUL: But there was no there was no money. The Olympic Committee did eventually help us with hotels and with everything on the island, but no, this was part of the deal. In a weird way, I felt more comfortable that way. Because if I'd taken on a professional role and commanded a salary, it wouldn't have felt particularly ethical because I would have felt I was painting myself as something I wasn't. You know, I wasn't a professional coach. I was getting more out of this than they were in many ways. So it felt like a deal that made sense. You know, I was a volunteer. It showed enabled me to gain people's trust a lot quicker, because why was I there, if I had nothing to get out of it, you know? I was clearly passionate about what I was doing.
JAMES: So Paul headed back to Pohnpei, looking to contribute and grow the game on the island in any way he could. What begun as casual kick-about’s eventually developed into forming a new league.
PAUL: When I first came back to the island, it turned out that by coincidence, the key person hadn't actually been on the island when we were there last. So a guy called Dilshan, Dilshan Senarathgoda, who was Sri Lankan by birth and had moved to Pohnpei with his family. And he had been there for 10, 15 years, a young guy about mid to early 20s. And he had been driving football, really, since Charles had left. He had been coaching this group of young kids. So I met up with him and he was absolutely over the moon that I was there. He was delighted. So we strategised, you know, went to a bar, got drunk and strategised. And we drew up the idea of the Pohnpei Premier League. This was going to be the key to everything, and I think it was in the end.
PAUL: People were interested, they just stopped playing. So what we did was, we formed a league, we marked the pitch out properly. We basically set times for games, we went around the island and we recruited teams. We went to all kinds of community groups, colleges, schools, anyone who thought might want to make a team. We even cold-called a Mormon hut. And in fact, the Mormons did enter out on the end. So we went round, and we set up a tournament. And then when the tournament was played, we used that as a chance to coach you know, teach local people to be the referees, and the linesman and all these kind of things. And it gave us a focus for doing up the pitch again and making it look good.
PAUL: So really, that league turned it all round - not immediately, you know, it took time - but people used to come and play. And then some other people would come just to sort of take the piss out of their mates who are playing, but then eventually, sure enough, they would come and play and it just caused this growth of the, of the sport. So initially, I wasn't coaching at all, really, I was, I was more administrating this league with Dilshan.
JAMES: But it was through this process that Paul’s original purpose on the island came back into focus - managing some sort of national team.
PAUL: And it was only after a few months of that league, where we set up sort of training for the most gifted of the players, for them to become this kind of, de facto national team. Couldn't be a national team, because that would be the Federated States. But we could be a state team. And that was what we did was we, we took out players that seemed keen and players that seemed talented, and we trained them with the goal to eventually having some kind of representative fixture. Because without any end goal, it just seemed like for the really talented kids, it just felt there was no real motivator to kind of drive them forward.
JAMES: By this stage it was 2010 and Matt had come back to Pohnpei to help out, and he and Paul set about arranging some friendly matches in nearby Guam, who are recognised by FIFA and have received significant funding for their own football program.
PAUL: So we contacted them, and they were open to having us on tour there as long as we could find a way to get ourselves over. So it's from that point, we set this target, we were going to Guam. But the players got behind this idea that we were going to play off the island. And it was incredibly motivating for them. But it also meant we had to fight this belief that they will be thrashed, because all that ever known is teams going away and being trashed. I was trying to tell them to believe in themselves and to really get them pumped up and think you know, “we can do this”. On the other hand, half of me was thinking, well, maybe we will lose 30-0. And if we did, we'd just come back. And there'd be a sense of “well, what was the point in that?”, you know, we may as well stop again. So it was agony trying to really get the psychology right.
JAMES: The guys lined up matches against three different club teams, plus one fixture with a Guam under 18 side.
PAUL: And the players were mostly quite shell shocked by just what they saw. You know, it was an incredible facility. And we lost our first game 3-2, to like a Guam Second Division team. And the players would devastated, it was like the end of the world to them. But I've got to admit, I was ever so slightly relieved. You know, I thought, “we can actually win one on this tour now”. And it was actually the second game that we played against again, a Guam Second Division team and beat them seven one.
PAUL: I mean, obviously for them it was I think a pre-season friendly, for a team that were low in the Guam leagues - I think they'd been relegated from the top division to the second division. They turned up for a friendly, but for our players, it was kind of the game of their lives. So I felt quite sorry for the Guam team. They didn't really realise what they were signing up for. But obviously like they were - it was an incredibly emotional moment for these players, and I remember, we were six - I think 6-1 up with four minutes left.
PAUL: And I just stood on the sideline. And instead of being happy, I'm just there with clenched fist, just going, “clear it, clear it, clear it”, just thinking if we actually threw this away, we may as well just disband football in Micronesia for good because, you know, no one will ever believe in themselves again. But yeah, we did, we won that game. And there was a little community of Pohnpeians in Guam who come out to support us. And it was kind of like this small pitch invasion, and the flag being sort of pinned on the posts. And it was just this lovely moment of a very tiny triumph, but one that meant a lot more to us.
JAMES: Pohnpei went on to lose the third match 2-1, before being defeated 3-0 by the Guam youth team. But Paul says they’d already achieved what they set out to do.
PAUL: The floodlights failed on 80 minutes, which is this incredible irony, given that we’d come from a place where we had to shine our car headlights on the field to light the pitch a lot of the time. And we came to this glittering facility and the floodlights failed. But for us, what it felt like was a real, a real vindication of the fact that, you know, Pohnpeians really could achieve something through football. And I think the players went home inspired by what they saw in Guam, because it was absolutely beyond their dreams. But equally feeling like they’d competed on a level in some way, you know, maybe, maybe 20, 30 years short of getting to where Guam are as a national team. But still you know, worthy of being put on a map with them. And I think that meant a lot really.
James: After all that, what did you learn through that process and you know, how did it change you?
PAUL: I came on the start this journey because I couldn't quite find a place in football, and I I did feel the game had changed. And I felt I was not changing with it, I wasn't willing to go along with it. And I think I'd felt a disconnection with the more corporate game, the commercialisation of it. I wasn't really that excited to report about the multimillionaire players who were the superstars. So I was trying to find the place, and that's what that's what I really learned was that, there are lots of places where football is still something that can do an enormous amount of good.
PAUL: And I think what I got was I got back to something a lot purer. You know, through probably the least pure route there is, being you know, this ego trip of wanting to be an international player and this kind of - all the trappings that that entails, and all this rubbish that I had in my brain. Strip that all the way, and actually what I really enjoyed was just seeing people express themselves through football, and the way that they grew, and the way that they opened out. There are different worlds of football, you’ve just got to find yours, and I think I eventually found mine.
JAMES: Many thanks to Paul Watson for sharing his story. And his football journey didn’t end there. He followed up his Pohnpei experience with coaching a team in Mongolia - which involved building a new club from scratch and starring in a local reality TV show designed to recruit players. These days he works with CONIFA, helping to grow football with the many nations and territories not recognised by FIFA. And in 2012 he published a book about his Micronesian adventures, titled 'Up Pohnpei' - which has since been optioned for a feature film.
JAMES: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. The theme song is composed by Nic Buchannan, with other music in this episode from Blue Dot Sessions and Epidemic Sound. Artwork is by Andrew Weber, with illustration from Moonshine Madness.
JAMES: You can follow the show on Twitter and Instagram at 'byassociationfc'. And if you have a great football story you’d like to hear on the show, please get in touch via the website, byassociation.audio. Thanks for listening.