As demonstrated this summer during the London 2012 Olympic Games, sport is something that is ingrained in our public psyche and something that really inspires our society, and no sport is more popular in our country than football. Every single week thousands pack out stadia across the country to watch football of hugely varying quality and varying divisions, regardless of the economic woes that grip most families.
The England team itself is blessed with some of the worlds most dedicated fans that follow it around the world to places as far away as South Korea, Azerbaijan and Trinidad and Tobago; if England played a friendly on the Moon tomorrow there would be fans purchasing Virgin Galactic tickets. One football fan took his passion for the game one step further by taking on the colossal challenge of travelling to a tiny island in the South Pacific called Pohnpei to set up a league and a national football team.
His name is Paul Watson and his book “Up Pohnpei: A Quest to Reclaim the Soul of Football by Leading the World’s Ultimate Underdog to Glory” tells his incredible story of how he tries to bring the beautiful game to the tiniest corner of the globe. Paul generously gave up his time to talk to me about his experience.
Football fans scrolling up and down the FIFA rankings will realise that Pohnpei is not there, because the island is not recognised by the sport’s governing body and so receives no funding. How difficult was it for you to set up any kind of footballing structure or system without any backing?
“To be honest it was very difficult. There was one source of help and that was the Micronesian Olympic Committee and their secretary general Jim Tobin, who really stuck his neck out to secure as much funding as he could for football. However, a lot of the equipment costs ended up coming out of my overdraft, which was far from ideal! Things seemed pretty daunting at first but once we set up a league it created a kind of momentum and it was clear that something could be achieved, even if it had to be done in baby steps”.
In your book you talk about the problems that the island suffers from such as unemployment, obesity, drug and alcohol abuse and high rates of teenage pregnancy; do you believe that your introduction of football and its continued development on Pohnpei can help tackle these problems?
“I wouldn't be bold enough to suggest that it can cure sure massive issues, but it can certainly be a positive outlet for youngsters who have a real dearth of options. Even amongst the players I worked with there were some very positive stories of troubled kids who had put substance abuse and antisocial behaviour behind them because they found a cause they could throw themselves into. There's great potential in Micronesia but once kids reach adolescence there's not much to encourage them to keep trying to play sport - it doesn't lead anywhere”.
The first objective in FIFA’s Financial Assistance Programme booklet states: “Stimulating the worldwide development of football and its principles, as well as its social, educational and cultural values”. From your experiences of dealing with FIFA, is this something that you think is correct or is it just hot air?
“There are some really good people at FIFA, but the machine itself is rotten. The level of bureaucracy needed to qualify for development funding is unrealistic for the kind of countries who need it most and too much of what goes on at the top level is motivated by external business interests and a network of favours and friendships. I'm not sure whether you could say that is any different from the way that any other business runs but football needs to be different because at heart it isn't about money. I think there were people within FIFA who would have loved to have helped us but their hands were tied”.
Football in this country, despite being blessed with dedicated fans and a rich history, is in more recent years being associated with huge sums of money, constant media coverage and regularly peppered with scandal. Having travelled to a place such as Pohnpei where sport is untouched by these factors did you take anything away which you would like to see adopted by football in this country?
“I ended up learning as much from Pohnpei as I taught. In many ways their relationship with sport is actually healthier than ours. People play football because they enjoy it rather than as a path to fame or fortune. There's none of the residual anger, resentment, Schadenfreude and hatred that is so prolific in English football. While I think it's unrealistic to imagine implementing vast changes to the footballing psyche of this country, I think we have a responsibility to the next generation of young players to instill in them an understanding that football is about entertainment - it is a force for togetherness, not for division. That's why I always feel saddened by kids being forced to play for results at a young age rather than being encouraged to enjoy the game”.
Countries such as Kosovo and Tibet are not admitted into FIFA because of their precarious political situations. Do you think that FIFA should stand by these countries by admitting them into the football community, perhaps giving them an outlet to get their societies away from the pain and destruction they’ve endured in their pasts?
“I think Kosovo will be admitted into FIFA soon and quite rightly so. I definitely think that FIFA should have an arm responsible for helping regions that cannot be formally admitted. As you say, football can be a great source of relief from bigger problems and it's sad that areas that need that kind of thing most are denied the chance. I can understand that FIFA walks a tightrope because it can't admit Tibet or Gibraltar or Greenland as it would cause massive political implications, but surely that shouldn't prevent them providing assistance. I always said that there should be a section of FIFA for non-recognised regions where funds are apportioned but always carefully administered by FIFA's own staff to prevent money being given out to the wrong people”.
The project on Pohnpei and your book “Up Pohnpei” has received huge amounts of media interest in the country because it captures our obsession with sporting underdogs. Have you had any offers or interest from people, charities or companies looking to help football development back on the island?
“Sadly not. Although football in Micronesia continues to build slowly, I am always worried that it will fizzle out without any new funding. I was confident that by writing and publicising the book some kind of sponsor would come out of the woodwork, but that has never happened. I guess people think they don't have much to gain by attaching their name to a league that is so far from the eyes of the western world. Up Pohnpei is being made into a feature film though, so I'm still hoping that there could be renewed interest. With less than £15,000 we managed to change the state of the game in Micronesia, can you imagine what could be done with a proper sponsor?”
image: © thesoccermen