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The Rise of the Matao: How Guam captured the hearts of thousands

Oliver McManus has a close look at the rise of football in Guam under Gary White and the reasons behind it.

When the tiny Pacific island of Guam kick started their 2018 World Cup qualification campaign against Turkmenistan on the 11th June last year and India just 5 days later, no-one quite knew what to expect from the country.

The Turkmenistan match was a match of firsts, the first time they were broadcast live on television, the first time they had even sold tickets for a match and, most poignantly, their first ever home qualifier. The Indian game was simply stunning, a match that may well go down as the most important moment in Guam sporting history. For those 5 days, this US territory was on fire, and boy, is it still sizzling.

Guam 2016

The Matao, as they are affectionately referred to by the 162,000 locals, had long been ignored by the wider international football community, but in the last 9 months they have captured the hearts of thousands of fans, the world around, and have come to symbolize the ultimate underdog.

To fully understand the stature of what the national team achieved in those 2 matches, a bit of contextual background would probably be of help.

You see, having only played 2 World Cup qualifying matches before, in November of 2000, their experience with this type of atmosphere was questionable, especially when you consider that they lost those 2 games 19-0 and 16-0 against Iran and Tajikistan, respectively.

Back then they had Northern Irishman, Willie McFaul in charge – a former goalkeeper and manager for Newcastle United. He left in 2003, and up until 2012, the Matao were under the realm of 3 different Japanese coaches who, by all accounts, failed to connect with the fans, or deliver results.

Their current manager, Gary White, has been a revelation as far the locals are concerned, adopting the moniker of the Matao – a term symbolising courage – this bond with the locals and immersion into the culture has promoted the national team to a whole new level of popularity.

It’s not just with the people where White has been successful. In his 4 years in charge, he has managed to double their win record and, of course, overseen their rise to a record 146th place in the FIFA Rankings.

The 41-year-old, a former Southampton academy player, only had previous managerial experience with the British Virgin Islands and a 9 year stint with the Bahamas before taking up his current role.

Under his management, a whole new breed of players have come through and represented the national team. Interspersing a mix of home grown talent and players from nations with a far bigger pool of skill to choose from, particularly America.

White’s recruitment policy has been key in improving Guam’s football on the national scene, but also, perhaps more tellingly, domestically. The two-tiered Guam Soccer League, has enjoyed a boom in attendances of late and increased international representation.

The Matao’s latest squad of 23 contains players plying their trade across the globe, goalkeeper Doug Herrick playing in China, Jonahan Romero, a defender for the 2014 Mongolian Premier League champions Khoromkhon, John Matkin and Shane Malcolm are both scoring goals in Thailand and New Zealand respectively, with a host of other players starting out for clubs in Guam and America.

Gary White, who had spent time in America with the Seattle Sounders, as a Technical Director, achieved his biggest player coup when he convinced A.J DeLaGarza to turn out for the national team. A relatively household name in America, DeLaGarza started 2 friendly matches for the USMNT in 2011 – against Venezuela and Panama, respectively – and was part of the LA Galaxy squad that won the MLS Cup in 2011, 2012 and 2014, before making the switch to Guam where he has been pivotal ever since.

DeLaGarza has served as a positive for the Matao since the transition in 2013, where he has served as one of the more senior figures in the squad. His experience paired well with the passion of Guam’s captain, top scorer and most capped player, Jason Cunliffe – born in the Island’s capital, Hagåtña – who has scored 17 goals in 35 outings.

Their win against Turkmenistan came courtesy of an own goal, a win which many saw as, potentially, a fluke. Their win against India was anything but.

Playing against the so-called ‘sleeping giants of football’, in front of a packed crowd of 3,277, the match got off to a tame start. Tame, that is, until the 37th minute when Brandon McDonald deflected a throw in into the back of Subrata Paul’s net to give Guam the lead.

A well timed run, followed by a superb show of individual strength and well placed finish from 21-year-old, Travis Nicklaw put the Matao 2 goals up. Whilst the former Sporting Lisbon B player, Sunil Chhetri, managed to pull a goal back for India in stoppage time, when Vietnamese referee Vo Minh Tri blew the whistle for full time, the result went to Guam.

The ultimate underdogs have big dreams, big ambitions but their heart is even bigger and that’s what makes their story resonate with so many across the globe.

We’ve all been doubted at some point in our lives, we’ve all been told we can’t do something, but as the Gary White’s Matao proved in the summer of last year, anything is possible. Anything.

Written by Oliver McManus

Oliver McManus

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