Guam Football Association president Richard Lai praised the Japan Football Association for their contribution to his country’s football development on Friday.
The mastermind behind Guam’s rise in the FIFA standings over the last 12 years spoke at JFA House following the Matao’s successful training camp in Osaka ahead of their joint qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup next month.
“[When I became the GFA president], I thought soccer was just 11 people on each side kicking the football, playing, and enjoying,” Lai recalled. “When I met [then-] JFA president Shunichiro Okano, he became my first friend in football.
“I was invited to witness the 2002 World Cup as a guest of the JFA, and there I realised that football is so big to the point that I felt like we were like an ant.”
Lai went on to outline the history of the football relationship between the two countries, from the arrival of national team coach Sugao Kambe in 2003 to the continued development of the underage categories through 2011 with Norio Tsukitate.
“My belief in football development got stronger,” Lai said of Under-14 victories against Mongolia and Macau at the end of Kambe’s reign, “because I realised that if we could defeat these countries at 14, we could defeat them at the senior level if we continued our development.”
Now, under head coach Gary White, Guam are enjoying their highest-ever FIFA ranking of 146 and sit atop Group D after their two headline-capturing wins in June.
“Today Guam is able to defeat Turkmenistan and India,” Lai continued. “It wasn’t a cinderella story, it was a result of 12 years of hard work and the unconditional support of the JFA.
“I remember what [JFA officials] told me: [Guam are] on the bottom group; and we need to push the bottom group up, so they push the middle group up, so they push the top group to compete with the world. Helping you helps us.
“Our team is full of confidence, and with the support of the JFA I believe that we will bring in good results. And we will share those results with the JFA.”
Now, as Guam continues to develop its young talent through university scholarships arranged by White, Lai hopes to return the favour to the JFA.
“Some of the high school players in Japan who can speak some English and have the ambition to study in America, Gary can help those players to put them into the American college system,” Lai explained. “They can have a good American education, and play good football in America.
“That’s one of my dreams, to give back to Japanese football youngsters.”