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Up Pohnpei

Paul Grech Monday, March 18, 2013 , ,
Leafing through the history of the English game you come across a number of visionary managers whose greatness stems from their achievements abroad.  Vic Buckingham almost became the first manager to win the double with West Bromwich Albion yet his biggest contribution to the game was that of laying the foundations for Total Football at Ajax. Jimmy Hogan was another who went against the flow by championing a game based on quick passes.  He too found that his theories were more appreciated in Hungary and Austria - where they gave birth to two teams that were to dominate the game - then they were at home. Then there's Fed Pentland who became a legend at Athletic Bilbao, Tony Waiters who took Canada to the World Cup and Bob Houghton who help shaped tactics in Scandinavia.

Comparing Paul Watson to such legendary figures would be foolhardy for in no way does he possess their coaching talent or vision. Yet in his own way he too has helped shape the footballing culture of a whole nation.

Foolhardy also perfectly describes how the whole venture came about.  A passing comment had led to a search for a national team bad enough to give him or his flatmate Matt Conrad a chance of earning an international cap.  It looked like a forlorn hope - even eternal whipping boys of world football seem to have at least one player who had played at a higher level than either of the two - until they came across Pohnpei, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean whose football team seemed to fit the bill.  It had never won an international game and, on that basis, was perhaps the only team willing to take a shot on them.

Most would have left it at that but not these two.  After an initial visit that confirmed the dire state of football on this island, they agreed to take on the job that basically meant re-establishing organised football.  All this without getting paid; indeed they had to empty their life-savings just to get there.

Just how hard this was going to be emerged on his first training session when just one individual showed up.  "It was a bit of a blow!" Watson admits as he looks back on that initial experience.  "A few more players came later but at first it did seem like we might have been barking up the wrong tree and that we were trying to create a football team on an island where there was simply no interest."

To complicate matters, his companion on this venture had to bail out early on leaving Watson on his own.  Matters eventually improved slightly although finding players and a good pitch to play on remained a constant struggle as was getting some of the players to obey his instructions. 

"I had no formal qualifications. All I had was the experience of having been coached at various levels throughout my life as a player. But just knowing what the structure of a training session is and how a coach is expected to act was an advantage on an island where nobody else had that level of experience."

"It was an interesting balancing act between trying to exert some kind of authority and not offending anyone. It took me a long time before I really started to be seen as a leader in the players' eyes."

That wasn't helped when an attempt to raise money by soliciting media interest resulted in one tabloid branding Pohnpei as "the worst team in the world".

"It's still my biggest regret during my time in Pohnpei," he admits. "Very few of the players were that bothered by it but in truth but I don't think I'll ever know what lingering resentment there was."

"I wasn't all that surprised. We knew that to some extent it was a deal with the devil. We needed some form of publicity to have any chance of getting some sponsorship and the only way it would be seen as news-worthy was if the papers exploited the sensationalist side of it. The real disappointment was that we didn't actually receive any sponsors from it, so it was all in vain."

Although that story did generate some tension, the impact was limited by the tendency of most of the locals to read only the local press meaning that for most it didn't even register.

Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles that Watson faced was that of understanding the local culture.  "The biggest thing for me was listening to the players and getting to see how they lived their lives. Actions that seemed bizarre became completely logical once you took time to ask questions."

Eventually, not only did he get to know the island but he also came to love it.  "I don't think I expected to fall in love with the island. When I first arrived there I was so concerned with my selfish aims and the arrogant idea of being the teacher that I found the place quite exasperating. The more time I spent on Pohnpei the more I realised it was me who was learning rather than teaching."

Despite his love for the island, it was still tough going as his financial constraints meant that he suffered both physically and emotionally.  Still he kept plugging away.  "It was mostly that I knew nobody else would step in if I gave up," he explains. "I often compare it to a gambler who invests so much that if they walk away it's all lost but if they keep putting more in then eventually it will pay off."

"There were some real low points and when my girlfriend Lizzie was ill I really wanted to come home, but I became so passionate about what I was doing that I couldn't allow those thoughts (of quitting) to creep in."

"In the end all the sacrifices financial, physical and emotional did pay off in that I hope we left a lasting legacy that can continue in the hands of local people. To leave at any earlier stage would have risked making no lasting impact at all."

That pay-off came when Pohnpei got to play a couple of friendlies against 'nearby' Guam.  It was an important step forward and one which will hopefully provide a base on which a better future can be built.

"Immediately after I left, the Pohnpei captain Dilshan took over the coaching and did a fantastic job," Watson continues. "The league on Pohnpei grew, an Under-14s League was set up and there were workshops in the neighbouring Micronesian islands of Chuuk and Yap funded by the National Olympic Committee."

"This is a crucial period though as there is still no FIFA or East Asian Football Federation funding despite attempts to provide the necessary paperwork."

The struggle to obtain FIFA recognition - and the money that this would generate - was another significant aspect of Watson's stay in Pohnpei.  "There are a lot of good people within FIFA, but the mechanism as a whole is so clunky that it is hard to make a difference if you are a small nation," is his view of the world governing body. "The level of bureaucracy and red tape expected in order to get the funding needed to drive a football programme is unrealistic. You are left with this Catch 22 situation where you need so many dedicated administrators before you are given the money to employ any."

"FIFA is letting down so many regions of the globe - they knew exactly what was going on in Pohnpei but they never tried to help even though we were running on almost no budget at all and giving people a chance to play who would otherwise have never kicked a ball."

Thanks to the foundations laid down by Watson, Pohnpei might one day get there.  In the meantime, he can take pride in the fact that he can put 'coach of a national side' on his CV.

"Funnily enough that hasn't really come up! I'm not sure it would have been particularly useful had I wanted to get a job in English football because most people wouldn't believe Micronesia was a real country!" he laughs. "As it is, I feel a lot of pride for what I managed to do in Pohnpei but I don't really attach any importance to the tag of national coach, not least because Pohnpei is only one state of the Federated States of Micronesia and the task of uniting the four states into one team was beyond my capabilities and a challenge that still looms large over the region if it is to receive backing from FIFA.

“Even so, I think football can be a fantastic force for good and it was amazing to see that in action in Pohnpei".

This article originally appeared on In Bed With Maradona.


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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer