08 Mar Matao success ranked No. 1 sports story by PDN in 2014
The Matao’s success in 2014 – including advancing to the semifinal round of the EAFF East Asian Cup for the third-straight time, as well as its notable performance in the semifinal round which included a win against Chinese Taipei, a draw with Hong Kong, and a head-turning match against DPR Korea – was ranked as the No. 1 sports story by the Pacific Sunday News.
Below is the article, as written by Pacific Daily News sports reporter Grant Wieman.
Matao’s success ranks No. 1
[Pacific Sunday News, Hagatna Guam – Jan. 3, 2015] The Guam men’s national soccer team, the Matao, achieved its highest international ranking in history last February and built to a record achievement in the second round of the East Asian Football Federation East Asian Cup in November, but it’s the potential for the future that has helped make the Matao the top story of the year.
The Guam men achieved a record International Federation of Association Football, or FIFA, ranking of 160 in February and closed the year at 161, following their third-place finish at the East Asian Cup, but it was in March that Guam Football Association President Richard Lai announced the Matao would enter into FIFA World Cup qualifying.
The remarkable growth was spurred by coach and technical director Gary White, who came aboard in 2012 and brought a plan for turning Guam into a soccer power.
White, who’s known as “the Gaffer,” changed the style of play, the pool of players and the long-term goals for Guam, but most importantly he gave the roster and community a belief that it was possible.
“The confidence has built within the boys,” Matao captain Jason Cunliffe said. “We’ve had the success this year, but it’s been a process. Gaffer came in almost two-and-half years ago now and we’ve been steadily making progress since his arrival.”
The confident style was put on display in the East Asian Cup’s second round. Guam qualified for the tournament by sweeping its opponents in the preliminaries earlier in the year, but past performances suggested the Matao would struggle against Hong Kong, North Korea and Taipei, the tournament host.
The Matao opened with a 2-1 win against Taipei and planned their strategy against tournament favorite North Korea, believing it was the equal, not an underdog.
“We didn’t sit back and absorb pressure; we were trying to take it to them,” Cunliffe said. “It’s a fabric of our style and that’s definitely something that the Gaffer has wanted to bring since he came in.”
The Matao’s tactics were part of a broader plan to build the soccer program as a whole, but mostly it was about playing the game the right way, White said.
Sitting back, clearing and defending isn’t fun, and it’s not soccer.
“What’s the point of playing a game if you’re coming in to hate it?” he said. “That’s not how the game is supposed to be played. It’s not the game we want our youngsters to see.”
The attacking style surprised North Korea, but when Cunliffe scored in the 61st minute to tie the match 1-1, it showed the style could work.
That goal was the highlight of White’s year, if not his life.
“Jason Cunliffe’s equalizing goal will be a moment that I will never forget,” White said via phone from China. “It gave proof that we are really moving in the right direction against a really strong team. … It was one of those moments where you think things are about to change.”
Guam lost because it played for the win instead of the tie, but North Korea’s coach praised the effort and the team earned respect from the opposition.
Prior to White, the Matao’s main goal against strong opponents was to minimize the embarrassment. With him, they try to win.
Before the game, North Korea’s players wouldn’t look the Matao’s in the eye. After, they were congratulating them.
“Our players were gutted,” White said. “They were sitting in the locker room, devastated. That’s how you could tell things were different.”
The divide in physical ability between Guam’s soccer players and those in the rest of the world — measured by size and speed — is relatively narrow compared to sports like basketball and volleyball.
The best player in the world, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, is barely 5 feet 6 inches tall. Brazilian captain Neymar is 5 foot 9. The challenge for the Matao is that finding someone with Messi’s potential is exponentially more likely in a country of 40 million than one of 160,000.
White has stretched that number — tapped into a bigger pool — by recruiting players from the U.S. mainland who have a viable connection to Guam.
Getting players like Ryan Guy and A.J. DeLaGarza, stars in Major League Soccer, to join the Matao was a challenge, but getting them to buy into the program White is committed to has been smooth.
Their playing style has a lot to do with it, Cunliffe says, but it’s mostly about devotion to Guam and themselves and the mentality trickles down to the under-8 kids in the GFA National Academy. At White’s insistence, the full team, including coaches and trainers, sings “Fanohge Chamorro” and chants the Inifresi — the Chamorro pledge — before each match and practice.
The Matao have a manager charged with providing lyric sheets to players from off island, and when the team gathered in Taiwan for the second round of the EAFF East Asian Cup, an older Englishman none of the players had ever seen before joined right in. That man, Richard Coombs, was brought in as a trainer for the event and was coached up on White’s expectation before he arrived from his home in Japan.
“Anybody that comes in the program needs to assimilate,” White said. “Before you come into our program, you need to understand you leave everything else behind and you’re part of our family now.”
Getting everyone on the same page off the field is easier than on it.
The Matao seldom practices together, save for four-day training camps immediately prior to tournaments, and some of the roster rarely, if ever, play together at all outside of matches.
“2015 is a big year for us in that regard because we have World Cup qualifiers coming up,” Cunliffe said. “In order to be successful there we’re going to have to get some friendly matches before we go into those tournaments.”
The qualification draw won’t be announced until July, according to FIFA.com, and 31 spots are available. Getting to that level isn’t a practical goal, Cunliffe said, but standing on the field with top Asian opponents and making them earn every shot is.
“We’re going to run with that and see as far as we can go,” he said. “(We’ll) make them earn it, work their socks off to beat us.”
Playing with that passion has helped the Matao, but the team is still a long way from considering itself an international contender. The Matao still wear jerseys of their favorite Brazilian stars, for instance, and when elite-level competitors such as Japan and South Korea are mentioned, the talk is more about keeping games close and making them work rather than about winning.
White’s 10-year plan was to make Guam the fifth-strongest team in East Asia, and the Matao is on the way there, sooner than later.
The goal is to move into the 150s, or maybe 130s, of the FIFA world rankings, which will be possible because of the high number of matches.
“It’s fun to step out there on the pitch with the boys and know that everyone believes in the system and know that they’re going to give it their all and that, win or lose, the other team is going to work hard to beat you,” Cunliffe said. “I think we’re on the right path. … We haven’t reached our full potential yet. We’re still at the very beginning stages of what can be fruitful for years to come.”