FOOTBALL minnows Guam have sent a clear warning to the Socceroos ahead of their EAFF East Asian Cup qualifier in Hong Kong next month - they are no longer the whipping boys of Asia.
Guam coach Gary White has described the apparent mismatch as the “biggest game in the history of Guam football" when the Matao march out for the first time against the green and gold on December 7.
The tiny Pacific nation, ranked 181 in the world – 148 places behind Australia – have been emboldened by a string of recent good results, including a couple of 3-0 wins against their former nemesis, Macau.
Gone are the cricket score losses and the dark days when holding a team to 10 goals was considered a triumph. With just over 2,600 registered players, Guam romped through the first round of qualifiers, reaping the benefits of an ambitious football program.
At the helm is a coach who knows something about the Aussies. Southampton born Gary White played two seasons for Fremantle City in the mid-90s alongside the likes of former Socceroo Robert Zabica.
It’s a period he “absolutely loved” and has a coaching stint in the A-League pencilled into his to-do list. But for the moment he has more pressing issues, such as the game against the Socceroos
“This is the one the players are looking forward to,” White told au.fourfourtwo.com from his base in Guam.
“That’s the game that they’re going to really enjoy because some of them will never play against (Australia) again.
“I think it’s like anything – on paper Australia are the better team and should easily win the game – but then there’s that underdog mentality.
“We want it to be a competitive game and you never know – if you can keep teams frustrated long enough and then counter on them – it’s happened before.”
With a clutch of MLS, European and Asian pro footballers now lining up for the national team, Guam now believe they have the quality to cause an upset or two.
They go into the tournament having never beaten any of their opponents but say they are a different proposition to several years ago.
“Our goal in Guam is to be competitive and to beat teams like Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei,” said White who has been just six months at the helm.
“We want to get some results, we want to show we’re competitive even with Australia and DPR Korea and we want to get some respect for the football program that’s really starting to grow here in Guam.
“We’re not going there to lay down and be the whipping boys, that’s for sure. We’ve worked too hard, we’ve got too many good players now to do that.”
As the Bahamas national team coach, White helped the island nation jump 55 places in the world rankings. He is one of 16 coaches under the age of 40 hand-picked by the FA to fast-track into the Premier League and has served on the US Soccer's national coaching staff.
But he sees his immediate future in Asia and said one of his first jobs for the tiny US territory was to identify potential players.
“The players from Guam are out there it’s just that they’ve never had anyone who could bring players together,” he added. “Most of my job since February is been going and finding those players who can represent Guam.”
These days about two-thirds of the national team is either playing professionally or on the brink of signing a professional contract. MLS starters like AJ DeLaGarza (LA Galaxy), Ryan Guy (New England Revolution), Shaun Nicklaw in the Danish topflight (HB Koge) and captain Jason Cunliffe playing in the Philippines (Pachanga Diliman) prove the talent is there.
Guy, 27, has been a more recent inclusion. White added: “The discussion with him was – well, if I play for Guam I can’t play for the US – he’s at that level. And there are more players like that.”
Much of the change has been credited to the drive of Guam Football Association (GFA) president Richard Lai. The country has a new $5 million national training centre through the FIFA goal project and has started a national academy providing two hours of after school training to the top 120 kids from the U8s and up.
Increasingly Guam is the destination of choice with Asian clubs. Along with the training centre there is the Leo Palace – a sports tourism hotel for travelling professional teams – often used by J.League clubs. White has even been talking with Western Sydney Wanderers coach Tony Popovic about bringing the A-League outfit to Guam during pre-season.
In June the GFA launched the name Matao – the traditional chief class among the indigenous Chamorro culture – to instil a sense of pride in their national team
“A lot had changed here in the last four to five years,” White said.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the pitch. The moment of truth for 250,000 Guamanians came in September when the Matao were beaten 1-0 in the 81st minutes by the Philippines in the Peace Cup.
“It was a really good feeling though because you could see how far the country has come – the Azkals are a decent team and they were very relieved to get by us,” White added.
“It was good to see that we could push teams that are far higher ranked than we are. It was a good confidence-booster and it was good to see our players disappointed in losing that game.
“They were gutted and that’s want I wanted to see from the players. Rather than be happy that it was just 1-0, they were devastated that they didn’t win the game. It was a big turning point for us.”