Monday, 3 December 2012

Interview #2 (December 2012) – Former Pohnpei manager Paul Watson.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) are a rare thing in non-FIFA football. Along with 8 others they are one of the last remaining full sovereign states who are not members of the world governing body. Yawning distances between the 4 main islands that make up the country (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae) make it effectively impossible for a national league or team to be set up. The Pacific state also suffers from a lack of sporting direction and, with American influences, other games take precedence over football.

Despite this the FSM national team has managed a handful of games most notably at their only Pacific Games appearance in 2003, but they crashed to a series of double-digit defeats before the government decided it wasn’t worth the investment to send a team again. The FSMFA was set up in 1999 and attended a FIFA congress the year after but slowly they were pushed away from the organisation. Despite flirtations with the Ocean Football Confederation (OFC) and more recently the EAFF East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) the islands have remained on the outskirts of international football.
Fiji 2003: the last FSM national team.

Englishman Paul Watson discovered a bleak situation when he moved to Pohnpei to coach football in 2008. Despite limited resources and a chaotic set-up Watson managed to get the island side over to FIFA member Guam for a series of friendlies. The story of his incredible adventure is worth a read in his book Up Pohnpei. With Watson now back in the U.K. we spoke to him to discuss what the future has in store for the islands, and how unhelpful FIFA were during his time there.

NFFU: We understand that Micronesia have recently applied to become members of FIFA via the EAFF. Has there been any news on the application?

PW: As I understand it, the application has been in for well over a year and the FSM FA have simply been told to wait. The next stage would be for someone to come and have a look round the facilities and the way the game is currently being run - they would then compile a report and the wait would begin again.

NFFU: Are you hopeful?

PW: My honest feeling is that the governing bodies are waiting it out and hoping FSM goes quiet again because of the logistical difficulties in helping them. The process moves at a glacial rate and people running football in FSM are doing so for free, so being made to wait this long is very tough.

NFFU: It seems that the islands have had limited (if any) help from FIFA. How frustrating was coordination with the worlds governing body during your time there?

PW: Dealing with FIFA was a nightmare - they didn't want to help at all and were insistent upon a chain of administrative red tape that baffled and frustrated me. To try and impose such bureaucracy on Pacific Islanders who really need help is pathetic.

NFFU: You have to be a regional confederation member before joining FIFA. How did advances towards the OFC go whilst you were in FSM?

PW: We started off contacting OFC and actually had a lot of guidance from Tai Nicholas, who really seemed to want to help. The problem was that funds are short in the OFC, especially now that Australia have moved. The other factor was that Micronesia is closer geographically to countries in the EAFF - it made sense to follow Guam and we were encouraged to do so.

NFFU: Does it seem odd that Niue, who’ve played only 2 games and not since 1983, are affiliated to the OFC and Micronesia are not?

PW: In a way, yes, but Niue is a long way away from the FSM and very much in Oceania rather than East Asia. As for whether Niue should be affiliated or not - that's a tough one. Niue is tiny and football isn't even the main sport, so it would seem an unlikely place to successfully develop football, but that doesn't mean it couldn't work if the right support was given - it just never has been.

NFFU: The distance between the islands is phenomenal. Do you believe a national league and team can ever be created bearing in mind this problem?

PW: It will be extremely tough. Funding is the key. The distances are one thing but they can be crossed - it's the flight prices that can't be negotiated at the moment. I think the logical step would be to run a state league on each of the islands, pick the best players to represent their island in a Micronesian Cup and from there pick a national FSM team, which would meet at training camps, which moved between the islands.

Watson oversees a Pohnpei training session.
NFFU: Football looks off the cards for the 2013 FSM (inter-state) games. How damaging do you think this is for the sport?

PW: It's a pity because it would've been a great time to get the building blocks for a national team and show the governing bodies that FSM is serious about football. But, once again it's a Catch 22 situation: how can anyone expect the flights for at least 40 athletes to be paid for with the modest budget the Games has?

NFFU: Do you believe a FSM national team will participate at the 2014 Micronesian (International) Games?

PW: I think 2014 may be too soon. The first stage has to be ensuring a grassroots structure in place on all the islands. There are a few stages before a national team could be built. Once again, it all depends on the EAFF though.

NFFU: Has the league you helped create in Pohnpei continued to flourish since your departure?

PW: Yes, the league has grown and now more people are playing than ever before. The problem lies in keeping standards high when there's no external opposition and no encouragement to reach the top.

NFFU: It’s difficult to relate but if you had to give a comparison of the standard in the Pohnpei team to a level in England what would you say is roughly right?

PW: I just don't think it can be compared. There were players who could acquit themselves in the Ryman League [English level 7-8] I reckon, but that's complete speculation.  

NFFU: Do you plan on returning to FSM in the future?

PW: I'd love to, but sadly I can't imagine ever being able to afford to. Flights cost £2000 return and I'm still in debt from my time there. If the FSM FA ever had money to pay a salary to a coach I would encourage them to use it to train up locals on each island instead of bringing in a foreigner.

NFFU: How are plans for a documentary on your story going?

PW: Very well. The documentary should be finished by spring 2013. Matt Conrad is working hard on that and has produced a new trailer which is great.

NFFU: Finally, if you had to give an honest answer, how long do you think it’ll be (if ever) before Micronesia participate in a World Cup qualifier?

PW: That's a tough one! I always believed when I was there that it would happen, but I have lost some of my optimism over the last couple of years. Realistically it won't be for another decade or so, but it's a very long way off. I would just love for there to be someone on each island being paid to run the sport so the next generation will get a chance to play.

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