That one of Asia’s most highly-anticipated matches during the international break between current AFC leaders Iran and the tiny island of Guam is testament to the tremendous advances in the continent’s grassroots football development over the last decade.
With its population of just 180,000, Guam have risen to its all-time high FIFA ranking of 146 through the successful implementation of a Japan Football Association (JFA)-backed development program dating back 13 years. But much of their recent achievements have come during the tenure of current senior coach Gary White, who has brought the Matao further than they’ve ever been in World Cup qualifying and shows no sign of stopping.
“Lot of people are surprised, but I’m not one of them,” White told Football Channel Asia two days before the team was set to depart their camp in Osaka for Tehran, where they will face the Asian Cup quarterfinalists at the intimidating Azadi Stadium.
“Our team has come out of the gates firing and gotten six points from two games, which is the maximum. We set the standard and now we’re waiting for everyone to catch up.”
Historic wins in June against Turkmenistan and India put Guam on top of Group D, drawing praise from Asian football journalists and raising eyebrows around the world. White, ever confident, does not believe that his squad will be intimidated by the infamous Team Melli.
“The team is focused; we’re aware that it’s an extremely hostile environment, especially with history and political background,” he says, days after reports surfaced of the Iranian government delaying his team’s visa applications. “But this is football, we’re focused on football side. The players want to do well. They’re not overawed by the occasion.
“The pressure is on Iran; for us every game we play is a World Cup final. It’s difficult to overcome a group of people with the same goal moving in the same direction.
“We see ourselves as a banana skin team. We’re ready to have a lot of these teams slip on us.”
White’s confidence is backed by a dedicated staff which includes sports scientist Andrew Young, formerly of Fulham as well as the Asian Cup-winning Australia national team. In stressing Young’s importance, the Englishman was not shy to declare his dissatisfaction with the fixture schedule.
“We’re not like UEFA where the distances are a lot shorter,” White noted. “We need to be one of the groups pushing [FIFA] for more time between matches. We play on 3rd and 8th, and it’s a massive amount of travel.
“When it comes to global and continental competitions, you need to take players’ well-being into account. It’s difficult to play in Azadi stadium and play again a few days later after traveling across a big distance, and that’s not only true for Guam but for all teams. The quality of competition would increase if players could recover.”
It’s no coincidence that Guam chose to make their camp in Japan: since 2003, the JFA has provided personnel and logistical support including previous coaches Sugao Kambe and Norio Tsukitate. Over a 10-year period, the two men oversaw significant developments in Guam’s youth system and set the stage for White’s successes after arriving in 2012.
“They’ve been a really big brother to a small developing island,” he emphasises. “We would not be [where we are] without the long-term planning and investment of the JFA.
“A lot of these players have been developed by Japanese coaches, and it’s made my job much easier.”
This is hardly White’s first trip to Japan; he is the fourth foreigner to participate in the JFA’s S-Class License program, considered to be Asia’s top coaching certification.
“It’s teaching me a feeling for Japanese culture and Japanese football culture,” he says about the course. “This will be my third high-level license after the FA Pro license and US Soccer A-License. It gives me a nice understanding of different methodologies.
“It’s important that all coaches become a little more global and able to adapt to different scenarios.
“My ambition is to work in Japan, it’s a country I respect. I think if you have a goal to do something, you should know what you’re dealing with.”
White is reluctant to point fingers when asked Japan’s infamous scoreless draw against Singapore in June, noting that the result is in some ways indicative that the JFA have succeeded in their goals of developing the region.
“The gap in Asia is closing; and that’s what Japan wanted. The JFA want that because they want a more competitive confederation, and one part of that is that they’re happy with the fact that teams can make it difficult.
I don’t think Japan are going to have too many of those situations against the teams in their group, but maybe it’s a good wakeup call. I think they are still the favourites in their group and they’ll get it together for the next game.”