image source: GuamFA.com
When the score went final on the 16th of June, the narratives began to fly. How could Guam, a nation with a population the fraction of India’s, have defeated this nation with a population over a billion? That’s been a frequent occurrence if you’ve read much about the Guam team recently. But it’s not about how many people live in the country or what the team did 15 years ago. It’s about the people in place now, from the players all the way up to the top, that really believe they can make some noise within Asian football.
It’s hardly surprising, given that both the Guam FA and Men’s National Team Head Coach Gary White put in place a plan years ago with the intent of getting to this point. Global football is cyclical, and nowhere else more so than in Asia.
The Asian Football Confederation likes to begin their World Cup Qualification process early. Really early. There are tens of teams that were eliminated from 2014 World Cup Qualifying all the way back in July of 2011. Guam didn’t even participate in the last round of qualifying. The same has been the case this time around, as six nations were already eliminated from the World Cup 2018 qualification process in March of this year.
But with such a long layoff between meaningful matches being played, it offers an opportunity for nations who truly want to turn things around to put the time in and put a plan of action into place. There were changes coming to the AFC Qualification process, and despite a seemingly endless amount of nations not paying attention to the FIFA Rankings, Guam was not one that followed suit.
Gary White had this to say about the rankings: “I think in the beginning we, for sure, focused on the ranking, because we knew it was the ranking that was going to give us the spot where we needed to be. We were strategic with the rankings. We would check possible rankings for possible opposition. But I think now we’re in a position where we want to be where the rankings become less significant for us and it’s now more about tournaments and games and getting results. I think in the beginning we had to look at the rankings. It’s a means to the end for us.”
If you follow We Global Football at all, we don’t need to tell you that these statements are exactly what we’d want to hear. It’s the way that teams go from being an afterthought to being a serious contender. “When I sat down with [President] Richard Lai three years ago, that was one of the things we discussed. How can we move up in the rankings? And we had to play more games.” All of this is in fact, true. You have to not only play matches, but get results, to move up in the FIFA Rankings. And the rankings are used to determine where you start your World Cup Qualification. It’s not like they could be any more important.
So Guam went out and played. By our count, they played 26 matches between the time Gary White took over and the time 2018 World Cup Qualification began. It started with matches against lower ranked teams, including a mixture of wins and losses. And as time progressed and the team began to come together, the competition stiffened, but the results did not suffer.
Up to Now
When the final pots were decided for 2018 World Cup Qualification, Guam had done well enough to avoid the preliminary qualification round. They headed directly to the group stage, which itself was an incredible feat. That meant, at a minimum, they’d have 8 World Cup Qualifying games against all levels of competition in Asia. Additionally, it greatly increased the chances of qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup, for which teams will qualify through a joint process with the World Cup.
Asia and Africa recently expanded their formats to include most teams in a group stage. Coach White said, “Better teams have a role to play in football development.” We couldn’t agree more. Having this expanded format gives teams that haven’t traditionally had the opportunity to face off against stiffer competition. Unlike Africa, which recently let its top teams destroy its teams that virtually never play a match, the Asian fixtures worked in reverse. Teams from Pot 5, including Guam, started with two matches at home against the teams from Pot 3 and Pot 4. While expectations may have been tempered in other circles, here at We Global Football, our rankings really liked the Matao to take care of business in both home games. We fully expected them to be exactly where they are, despite India having 1.25 billion people. The population of a nation simply does not matter (see: Uruguay). It’s all about having the right people in the front office and the right people on the pitch.
As far as the pipeline and bringing new players into the fold, things are starting to open up a little more due to the recent success. “We were in contact with a few players before the World Cup qualifiers, and we’re still discussing trying to get them to come and play with us. Hopefully these results will help with that. We’re always looking. There are so many eligible players out there that don’t even know they’re eligible. Our job is to keep recruiting and keep looking for those players without messing up the spirit within our squad at the moment. We’re very cautious with who we approach. Not only with their football abilities, but also their mental abilities. We’re a very tight-knit group right now, and it doesn’t matter how good you are if you come in with the wrong attitude.”
“We’re a lot more picky in terms of what we’re looking for. But we’ve got other players out there, and we’re constantly being contacted by players so it’s just a question now of who fits and who doesn’t, and the only way you can do that is go out and meet with them face to face.”
Qualification the Rest of the Way
Guam sits atop Group D on 6 points. But there is plenty of work to be done. Only 2 matches out of 8 have been played, but there’s no questioning the start couldn’t have gone better for Guam. “Right now we’re just taking each game as it comes and trying to meet those objectives and goals for each game. The confidence in the camp is sky high right now, as you can imagine, but we’re also trying to keep the players grounded. It’s going to be a great test for us against Iran on the 3rd of September. They now need the points. We go into that game as leaders of the group. We know there’s going to be 120,000 people in the stadium.”
“But again, that was the plan. We wanted to be top of Group D after the first two games. Not just for the points. We wanted to get our players exposed. Now I think people will take us a little more seriously and our players will get better opportunities at clubs because we sit atop of the group. And also we wanted to be top of the group so the game means something when we went to Iran, because we wanted to have that environment. We don’t fear that environment. We’re excited by it.”
Other teams need to take a lot of lessons from what Guam has done. They’ve developed a long-term plan, put the right people in place, and seen success both on and off the field. There are many factors at play including rankings, recruiting, and player development. These are things that Guam has done well at under the guidance of Richard Lai and putting the right man in place in Gary White.
On 6 points through 2 matches is just the start. Don’t expect Guam to go away as a team that will be a serious contender in Asian football for many years to come.