In November 2007 I was at home in London, watching England lose to Croatia in their crucial qualifier for Euro 2008, and despairing at how abysmal they were. At the end, the commentator tried to reassure us that England could still qualify if Andorra beat Russia. My mate Matt and I looked at each other and said: “Andorra beat Russia? Andorra are so bad we could probably play for them.”
And that’s how it began. Could we really play for Andorra? Perhaps not, but there were far, far worse national sides, so who played for them? Maybe even we could, and win an international cap? Surely, as amateur footballers, we weren’t far off.
After a few days, we found a likely-looking team. Pohnpei is an island of 34,000 people in Micronesia, 1,800 miles north of Australia. It’s a US protectorate, and one of the unhealthiest places on earth – 91 per cent of its people are medically overweight because they subsist mostly on tinned American food. And they’d never won a football match against anybody.
We emailed the Pohnpei Soccer Association, but learnt that to play for Pohnpei we would have to become naturalised citizens, so we would have to live there for five years. The real problem, they told us, was that Pohnpei didn’t have a proper coach. There was nothing to stop two Brits coaching the side.
So in July 2009, I gave up my job as a journalist, Matt packed in his filmmaking, and we set off for Pohnpei, with kit donated by Norwich City and Yeovil Town, but no coaching badges. The first thing we did was ban the eating of betel nut, a mild sedative. We trained five days a week and used an old gym above a pig pen. We only had one pitch: it was always flooded, and the ball would often be diverted by a toad.
There was no league when we arrived, so we set up a five-team division, mostly from community and church groups. It generated a lot of interest; it ran for two months, and the top two teams played a cup final. The floodlights blew during the final, so everyone had to pull their cars up to the side of the pitch and turn on the headlights.
In September, Matt got an offer to go to film school in LA, but I decided to stay on. I’d turn up in torrential storms to coach the team, and one day I came down with boils after marking out the pitch with house paint. Back home, my girlfriend was ill with swine flu. The players could see that if I was doing this for a laugh I must have been a maniac.
From the league I picked the state team to tour Guam, a neighbouring island. Matt had come back by then, and a friend of his who runs a cargo airline stepped in with funding. We had these brilliant Adidas shirts with the players’ names on – they were probably worth £30 each and they were the most expensive item any of our players had ever held. One of them said he was going to wear his for his wedding.
On tour we played three club teams and Guam’s national under-19s. We lost the first game 3-2 but won the second 7-1. That was a huge moment: this was the first time a Pohnpei team had ever won a game against Guam in anything. The league is now up to six teams, with 150 players. And Dilshan, our captain, is now the coach, and has set up teams on Yap and Chuuk, two of the other islands. I take real satisfaction from that.
There’s still no Fifa funding in Micronesia. There are so many places in the world where a little investment could make a real difference to people’s lives, but I imagine Fifa would rather open yet another soccer school in Barcelona.
I came back to the UK in 2010, but I’m not going to coach here. The project was very much about Pohnpei. I found the soul of football in a place I least expected to find it; I came home and found that it wasn’t here, in England, any more.
‘Up Pohnpei’, by Paul Watson, is published by Profile Books on February 2