With a population of just 162,000, Guam is a tiny unincorporated U.S. territory in the western Pacific, perhaps best known as the site of ferocious Second World War battles between the United States and Japan.
In footballing terms, Guam are the ultimate underdogs—the least populous nation still participating in the qualifying stages for the 2018 World Cup and ranked 156th by world football's governing body, FIFA.
Despite all of their obvious disadvantages, Guam have gained a serious reputation as the little team that could. They owe that status largely to the remarkable efforts of the man who has been their manager since 2012, Englishman Gary White.
White oversaw wins against India (population 1.2 billion) and Turkmenistan in 2015—the Turkmenistan triumph being the first World Cup qualifier ever held in Guam.
The former Bognor Regis Town player, whose coaching journey has taken in roles with the British Virgin Islands, Bahamas and Seattle Sounders, believes the climate is right for the minnows of world football to have their day in the sun.
"I think the top international teams have maybe plateaued and the smaller teams are working hard to get better," White told Bleacher Report on his first trip back home in two years.
"Maybe it's a mixture of laziness and desire, but because it's not week in, week out, you can outperform yourself. It's tournament football."
Guam Football Assoc @GuamFootball
Matao head coach Gary White is now among the world's highest licensed coaches w/ the FA Elite Coaches Award #Guam http://t.co/OxEJB6nOO47/10/2013, 11:14:38 AM
One of White's defining contributions to Guam's national team was to build a brand fans could relate to. His team became known as the Matao.
"That's the chief of the old Chamorro society, who are are the indigenous Guamanians. I created that name because the team had no connection with anything.
"Before the games, we started doing the Inifresi. It's an old hymn. Everyone in Guam knows it, as it's sung in school. Before the game, we stood in the centre circle and sang it. Now they don't talk about the national team in Guam; they talk about the Matao."
Having imbued a sense of Guam-ness, White began looking for a way to level the playing field against nations with far bigger pools of players to pick from.
So began a global search for players eligible for the Matao that continues today. White has already recruited the likes of Mason Grimes of the Tulsa Roughnecks and A.J. DeLaGarza of L.A. Galaxy.
DeLaGarza played for the U.S. men's national team in 2012, but since that match against Venezuela was a friendly, he remained eligible to change his allegiance. After being approached by White, DeLaGarza switched to Guam in August 2013.
Mixing overseas-based players with locals such as Jason Cunliffe—Guam's captain, most capped player and record scorer—White took his team to places that never before seemed possible.
Wins against Turkmenistan and India gave Guam a miraculous start to the second round of Asian World Cup qualifying. For a brief moment, hopes of going to Russia in 2018 loomed large. Guam dared to dream an improbable dream.
Sadly, there were reality checks to follow. Two 6-0 losses to Iran and away defeats to Turkmenistan and India left their chances of advancing in tatters.
"We were the smallest team in Asia and complete underdogs going into those first two games," White said. "When we went to Iran, we were taken more seriously. I think that affected us."
White called Turkmenistan "the most hostile place I've ever been." His team stayed in a six-star hotel in the capital Ashgabat, but an eerie sense surrounded the building. White is sure the same cars were driving around in circles to give the impression there were people around.
"We dominated the game but lost 1-0. The players were devastated."
Despite that loss, in October 2015, Guam reached an all-time high of 146th in FIFA's world rankings—quite the achievement for a nation with a population of less than White's city of birth, Southampton.
"What the gaffer has done is one of the most amazing things in the history of football," said Guam skipper Cunliffe, who has scored 17 goals in 42 appearances for the team.
Cunliffe's father was secretary of the Guam Football Association when they joined FIFA in 1996. He knows only too well of the challenges White has faced and recognises there are still barriers for Guam's best players.
“While our recent success has certainly helped, it hasn't overcome the stigmas attached to being both Guamanian and being American. In the footballing world, that's basically a sure-fire way to not only not get signed but to not even getting a look.
"We need a path other than the American college system for our players to grow and maximize their potential. The U.S. system is great, but it's not for everyone."
Guam could not sustain its own professional domestic league, so one idea White is campaigning for is the inclusion of their top teams in overseas competitions.
"We've got [some of] our best players where they want to be, like the MLS or the USL, but others are in limbo. They either don't want to leave the island or need another year or two of development, so Guam is thinking of going into the J.League [Japan's professional league] in the third division.
"We're just looking now. It's cost versus the effort. It's either Japan, the Philippines or Hong Kong. It’s got to be somewhere with a direct flight to Guam."
United Airlines sponsors the Guam national team, but the GFA also backed the World Cup quest, along with Guam's government, who provided $400,000 toward costs.
Though out of the running for a spot at Russia 2018, the Asian World Cup qualifiers double as Asian Cup qualifiers. White's team could still make the 2019 finals in the United Arab Emirates, and with that in mind, he is stepping up his search for players.
"To play for Guam, you need to have been born there or have parents or grandparents who were born in Guam. Guam is home to one of the biggest U.S. military bases in the world. ... Think of all the people that have been through Guam since the Second World War."
White has not neglected the locals. Around 150 kids have attended a new national academy created by White, who is keen to make an impression whatever he does, including how he dresses.
"I'm a big believer in looking good on the sidelines," he said. "I dress up for games. Sometimes I wear a cravat as I want to have a brand."
Once one of the youngest national coaches in the world—when at 24 he took charge of the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean after faxing more than 200 FIFA associations—White has come a long way since toiling as a semi-professional for Bognor Regis Town.
"I didn't want to be chasing contracts at 35, and I knew I wouldn't have the playing backgrounds of other players when they retire at 35."
After guiding the tiny BVI to a rare competitive victory at the 1999 Caribbean Cup, he was poached by the Bahamas, where he spent nine happy years before being tempted with a job as Seattle Sounders technical director.
He still relishes the international game but dreams of one day getting a job in England.
White recently spent time with Southampton manager Ronald Koeman—which he described as "a fantastic experience"—and is optimistic about making that dream come to fruition. In the meantime, he is studying for his coaching pro license in Japan.
For now, White's focus remains on Guam, but had the Matao not made the second round of Asian World Cup qualifiers, the implications for the Pacific island would have been dire.
"If we hadn't qualified for the second round, we wouldn't have had a competitive game for four years. ... In terms of high-level competition, we wouldn't have had any games."
While White means no disrespect to regional lightweights such as Mongolia, the former Portuguese colony of Macau and fellow U.S. protectorate the Northern Mariana Islands, he is now aiming for bigger things with the Matao.
The 41-year-old has made quite the journey from Bognor on England's south coast. Where he goes next is anybody's guess, but the strong likelihood is it will be upward.
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