Behind the scenes as Guam make history

Tiny nation Guam rocked world football when they defeated Turkmenistan and India in consecutive World Cup qualifiers over the span of five days. Scott McIntyre charts the Micronesian island's rise and rise after being given unlimited access to their 10-day training camp.

Football often has the power to transform the course of history, to foment ideals, to prevent or incite conflict, to balm historical scars and provoke debate.

Pele’s involvement in the Nigerian Civil War in 1967.

Honduras & El Salvador in 1969.  

Mohun Bagan in mid-1911.

VIEW ALSO Gallery: Behind the scenes as Guam make history

Perhaps, now Guam in the second decade of the 21st century.

For the tiny island, a speck in the northern Pacific, the historical impact of this week’s back-to-back World Cup qualification victories may be felt for many years to come.

The immediate sway of the 2-1 win over India yesterday and the 1-0 triumph over Turkmenistan five days earlier has been that the side universally known as the Matao have become something of an international sensation and the focus of Guam.

So much so that the island’s rugby-loving Governor, Eddie Calvo, sat on a folding chair in the sweltering heat to watch the games; that hundreds of fans turned up to a meet and greet with the players; that there was front-page newspaper and prime time television coverage for the first time in the nation’s history; and that coach Gary White and his players pushed their friendship with the Guam FA by promising match tickets to virtually every local they came across.

It wasn’t just the results that have made people sit up and take notice either. It was also the manner in which they were constructed.

A team that, in the not-too-distant past, had neither the confidence nor the ability to take the game to higher-ranked opponents has shown over the past week that they are fast emerging as one of Asia’s more attractive sides.

Defensively well organised, comfortable in possession and with the ability to adjust and dictate the tempo of a match, Guam have well and truly cast off the minnows tag.

But it’s all about the bigger picture issues that this team has the potential to paint on an international canvas.

That starts with a language and culture that for many years was suppressed, but which in recent times has seen a strong revival.

The team, driven by White and captain Jason Cunliffe, has set about tapping into their cultural roots, with more than half the present crop having ties to the indigenous Chamorro people.

Before every training session they chant the Inifresi, a pledge to uphold their Chamorro background, and for the next series of international matches they will revert to playing in an orange kit, the traditional colours of the island.

Cunliffe, the side’s long-serving captain and all-time leading goalscorer, argues that football has a significant role to play in restoring pride to a nation that has long been a colonial plaything.

“I think what we’re doing is empowering [locals] to some degree. There is a resurgence in the culture within the youth and I think them seeing what we’re capable of as a little island will allow them to grow their belief in themselves and their mentality,” he said.

“Through us they can see what we’re capable of in broader terms, geopolitically even. It’s a great thing, I think it will bring attention to us and give some of the younger kids here the belief that they can go and achieve things they didn’t think was possible.”

While the team set themselves the target of being exactly in the position they now find themselves in, there were some who privately wondered if it was actually possible.

India, a nation whose smallest state has almost 700,000 people, went up against Guam, with barely a quarter of that, and lost; an Asian Cup participant in 2011, who, like Turkmenistan just days prior, were likewise brought down by the tiny island nation.

Much of the side’s recent success has been down to a far-sighted campaign by White to encourage players, most from the United States mainland, with roots to the island to turn out for Guam.