Matao makes top PDN sports story for second-straight year

Matao makes top PDN sports story for second-straight year

[December 27, 2015 – Hagåtña, Guam] The Matao’s yearlong success was named the Pacific Daily News’ top sports story for the second straight year.

In 2015, the team achieved its highest ranking to date – No. 146 in the world – follow back-to-back victories over Turkmenistan and India and a scoreless draw with Oman in the team’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia and AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 Joint Preliminary Qualification Round 2 campaign.

The complete story is below:

No. 1: Matao shock the world

By Grant Wieman ( [email protected])

No local team had more international success in 2015 — and none did more to paint Guam in a positive light around the globe — than the men’s national soccer team.

The Matao shocked the world with monumental victories early in the summer and kept attention into the fall with results that outsized their standing in the international football world.

By hosting, and winning, the first FIFA World Cup qualifier matches in Guam history, the Matao showed how much a group of dedicated, talented and focused individuals can accomplish from an island so small in a world so large.

The Matao’s success this year was the biggest sports story in Guam, and one of the most covered in the world.

The magnitude of Guam’s win against India can’t be understood with numbers because the scale is unimaginable.

If every resident of Guam was suddenly cloned 8,000 times, India would still have a larger population. During the three days between Guam’s 1-0 World Cup qualifier win against Turkmenistan and its game against India, there were more births in India than people alive — total — in Guam.

The idea that a nation so outmatched in terms of size could top another with skill is perhaps the greatest thing about sports, and that symbolism took hold around the world.

For months, tiny, overlooked Guam led its World Cup qualifying group. Media outlets across Europe, Asia and the United States picked up the story and ran with it.

The Matao were featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. On ESPN, CNN and Soccer magazines and world sports organizations plastered Guam’s success across the banner spread of their websites.

Guam soccer takes center stage. Guam spring another surprise; Shock win over India puts tiny Guam on the map.

“No one in the world thought we would even score a goal in any of our games,” Guam head coach Gary White said in a text message to the Pacific Daily News, “let alone win two and tie one … to teams with a long and storied soccer tradition.”

On purely a macro sense, the Matao’s round of matches was a game-changer. Countless other local sports federations look at the success of the soccer program in awe.

There have been calls for change in a variety of national-level sports, and each time the refrain is a variation of the same: “If we do X, we can be like soccer.”

Perhaps the sentiment is true, or perhaps the Guam Football Association program caught onto an unsustainable tide.

Did the Matao create a new model — spend the money; work hard; build from the youth up; find the best eligible talent, on- and off-island — or did they find the perfect team at the perfect time?

White believes the future is bright for the island and the soccer program.

The micro impact of the 2015 Matao has already begun.

Iran was nervous

Guam hosted Iran in the seventh and most recent match of the World Cup qualifier matches.

Iran won 6-0, a repeat of the result in Iran two months earlier — they’re the only team to score more than one goal against Guam thus far and almost certainly the best team in Asia; they played in the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil and held Lionel Messi’s Argentina team scoreless for 92 minutes — but after the game and before the Iran squad was on edge.

Iran finished the year ranked No. 45 in the world; Guam ended at 157 after peaking earlier in the year at 146. But Iran was nervous to play them.

The loss knocked Guam out of contention for the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals, a presumed inevitability that briefly wasn’t.

The loss was crushing for the players, who cried in the locker room after the game. It took Matao captain Jason Cunliffe nearly two weeks to shake his depression.

“The fact that we were so down, … it sucks but it shows that we’re growing,” Cunliffe said. “That whole experience was great — not only for myself, but for the island as well.”

When the crowd went home and the players gathered and boarded the bus back to their training camp home at LeoPalace Resort, White stayed behind. He and the Iran coach had to talk.

Coaches confer

Carlos Queiroz is among the most accomplished soccer coaches in the world. He’s a former assistant for Manchester United and manager of Real Madrid. He coached Portugal as Cristiano Ronaldo was developing as a young player and worked with several national teams before settling recently with Iran.

He’s seen more soccer and been around more international competition than just about anyone and, after his team beat Guam, he wanted to buy White a drink.

White met him at a hotel in Tumon and they talked into the night.

“We sat down for three hours,” White said. “(He) said it’s truly amazing what I achieved with Guam, considering the resources, player pool, population and lack of international experience. ‘Guam obviously has a special coach and special players.’”

“‘We took your team very seriously and respected your team due to your results and the way you play as a team,’” White said Quieroz told him.

White was taken aback.

The coaches have stayed in touch since and Queiroz has become a mentor to White, who aspires to coach at the same levels Queiroz has already reached.

A similar thing has happened with some of the players.

As captain, Cunliffe spends more time with the opposing players than many of his teammates. He meets them at press conferences and talks to them during pregame meetings and on the pitch.

In two games against Iran he shared stories and experiences with the team’s captain, Andranik Teymourian, a former Premier League player. He got to know a player on India. And one on Turkmenistan.

“Those guys have played at literally the highest level,” Cunliffe said. “Anytime you can pick up any positive idea or tips, you’re always trying to get them.”

Watching video of games and seeing the speed and the angles they take across the field first hand is a totally different experience.

Helps the team

Getting in a game against the best players in the world helps everyone on the Matao. When they practice with the U18 national team or their high school team — several Matao players coached in the IIAAG this season — the experience is passed on to them. And so on.

White’s work with Queiroz will be shared with young assistants like Mark Chargualaf and Dominic Gadia and then on to the next generation.

“I still don’t think I’ll grasp the magnitude of it for some time to come,” Cunliffe said.

It could be that the Matao’s 2015 success is not just the biggest sports story of the year, but one that shapes the entire local sports culture for years to come.