With a population of just over 165,000 and no pro league to speak of, there are few who would have pegged Guam as the next hotspot of Asian football.
In early 2012, the island nation were ranked 193rd by FIFA and 41st in the AFC, just above countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Bhutan.
Less than two years later, the Matao found themselves flying high with a FIFA ranking of 160th (currently 162nd) and a remarkable record of just two losses in their last 11 matches. In July, they advanced from the first round of EAFF East Asian Cup qualifying for the first time ever. In last week’s second round of qualifying, they defeated Chinese Taipei, drew with Hong Kong, and stayed neck-and-neck with North Korea for much of an eventual 5-1 loss.
The man responsible for Guam’s turnaround, English coach Gary White, spoke to Football Channel Asia about the tournament and his possible future with the Matao as they prepare for World Cup qualifying.
Gary, thank you for joining us. Are you satisfied with how qualifying went despite failing to advance to the final stage?
It was a fantastic experience; we’d never won a semifinal game before prior to me arriving. Guam had been in [the East Asian Cup] for 20 years and never won a game at that level. To win a game and tie a game and narrowly lose to a World Cup-worthy team like North Korea where we were deadlocked until the 80th minute was a fantastic story, especially with our population and resources.
Take us through the recent qualifiers, beginning with your win against Chinese Taipei.
We hadn’t lost to them in our two previous matches; it was a game we expected to win so we weren’t surprised. They did have a strong team with Chinese Super League players, it was the strongest team we’ve ever faced. Seven years ago Guam were losing 10-0 to Chinese Taipei, and to go undefeated over three games (2-1-0) is a real big step forward.
At one point they were the strongest country in Asia, and to beat a country with the football pedigree they used to have, in front of their home crowd wasn’t a lucky result.
After that came North Korea, and clearly that was always going to be a tough match.
Nine years ago we lost 21-0 to North Korea; it was possibly their biggest victory. Going into the game we knew it was going to be tough, we’d never beaten them. We missed a PK in the first half, they scored and went 1-0 up at HT. The courage and the belief that my players showed was fantastic. We got the equaliser and were toe-to-toe.
Did it ever cross your mind to play for the draw?
The way we play is to win the game; I’m not happy about tying or sitting back and losing. A win’s a win, so we went looking to win the game and we had opportunities. In the last 10 minutes we were pushing, and North Korea’s quality shone through in the end. We have to learn to be a little more experienced when we do go looking to win the game.
What advice would you give to North Korea’s Asian Cup opponents?
Don’t be overawed by their aura; they have a very strong sense of identity and a lot of people are scared of playing them. Go at them because they’re not used to it. Play against them tactically; we man-marked a couple of their players and it took them out of their rhythm. They play a robotic 4-4-2 and struggled to adapt to us dealing with their philosophy and style.
After the game, their head coach told the press that he had to adapt to us because game plan and strategy weren’t working. Be aggressive against them, and don’t give them too many chances because their quality will shine through. If you sit back against them you’re just playing into their philosophy.
Your qualifying run ended with the scoreless draw against Hong Kong.
We were without two of our starters; AJ DeLaGarza had to go back to the Los Angeles Galaxy. When you lose a player of his quality it’s going to make a dent in any team. but it did create an opportunity for our young players to show themselves. Our back line had 23 year olds and a 19 year old. We went into the game believing we could win and maybe we should have. Hong Kong are a good team; their players are all in Hong Kong or in China.
AJ DeLaGarza was a name few would expect to hear in regards to Guam!
He’s defender of the year and should be named to the MLS XI. In the past he played for the US in a couple of friendly games but now he’s cap-tied to Guam. AJ is of a top pedigree and we’re really happy to have him.
Will he lead the way for other ‘expat’ internationals?
When you get a player like AJ onboard it brings a lot of exposure and helps our recruitment. We’ve been contacted by a lot of players, and we’ll start looking at their background and getting them involved.
World Cup qualifying starts next year, what will Guam face?
We’ll will go straight to the group stage, and that will be our first time skipping pre-qualification. It looks like there will be eight groups of five, with two seeded teams in each pot.
Which big teams would you like to play?
I’d love for us to draw Japan, South Korea, or Australia. We want to play against the better teams to get that extra experience. Of course it’s a financially good thing for the program as well.
Will you have a goal for the qualification stage, either a certain amount of points or a more abstract target?
It’s hard to tell. We want to start our strongest team possible and do our best against whoever we play. A lot more teams are wary of playing Guam and there’s a lot more respect.
Finally, what’s in your future?
I’m negotiating an extension to my contract, which currently finishes in December. Guam is a fantastic program and the players are fantastic; what we’ve achieved is great. But any coach wants to play with his players daily and get results. The problem with international football is that it’s based on the FIFA calendar and it’s not easy because you don’t get enough time with players. I really want to be with players on a more regular basis, so I’m still deciding what I want to do.
I’ve been contacted by a couple clubs and national teams that have shown interest, but at this point it’s just talk. I want to work for someone like my current employer Richard Lai, who’s the most forward- thinking person in global football. When you have vision you can achieve anything, and Guam have proven that.