The World's Worst Football Team

Most little boys dream of growing up to play football for their country. Or at least a country. Any country, really. Only a tiny handful achieve it and the rest of us have to watch from the sidelines. Or do we? England fans Paul Watson and Matt Conrad travelled to a tiny island in Micronesia on a lark, hoping to win international caps by playing for a team that once lost 16–1 – to Guam. What they found there changed them, and made them remember why they fell in love with football in the first place…

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Sometimes, he still feels it. It comes on those rare English days, when rain falls on hot tarmac. It hits the road and darkens the pavement and clatters the roof tiles and then it comes – the lush smell of damp on warmth. He breathes it in, and he’s back in the Pacific, back in Pohnpei, back with a national football side, and he wants to go back so much…

Today, 29-year-old Paul Watson is in a Costa coffee shop in Hammersmith. Pale, fit, handsome and sad, he sits with his cappuccino, narrow limbs angling out of the red club chair, chin balancing on wrist, long legs squashed behind the low table. It was in a room, not far from here, that it all began.

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Five years ago, he was watching football with his best friend, Matt Conrad, when they had a jokey conversation about their abilities as players. England were struggling to qualify for Euro 2008, having just lost to Croatia. The commentator tried to reassure viewers that England would still go through, if only Andorra could beat Russia. Andorra! God, they sounded terrible. Even Paul and Matt would be good enough to play for Andorra. Wouldn’t they? No.

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So who would they be good enough for? Who were bottom of the Fifa rankings? Monserrat and Bhutan. Did they have the ability to play for either? Are there any rankings of non-Fifa teams? There’s one, the Nouvelle Federation, maintained by nerds in Belgium. Did they have the ability to play for any of those teams? Greenland? What about Monaco? Southern Cameroons? Lapland? Who was at the bottom – the worst team on the worst list? Yap. Yap!

Where was Yap? They typed it into Google. Yap was a Micronesian island, population 6,300, some of whose inhabitants still used stones as currency. They looked up Yap’s football association, their stats. They’d recently lost 15–0 to Guam. Surely they’d now found a national side they’d be good enough to play for?

But wait – Yap had beaten one of their neighbours, a place called Pohnpei. Paul typed the strange word into Wikipedia. And there it was, the sentence that triggered all of what was to come: “They have never registered a win, and are said to be the weakest football team in the world.”

A plan. They’d pitch up, two English lads, get a cap, and go home. What a story! They found a primitive-looking website for the Pohnpei team and sent a vaguely worded email, expressing interest in football on the island. They didn’t want to reveal their plan to play for Pohnpei too early. That would be cocky. Anyhow, it wasn’t as if they’d receive a reply.

For Matt, the idea was hilarious. But for Paul, their scheme had a secret, longing depth. He’d grown up in Bristol, dreaming of playing for his beloved team, City. As a boy, he’d watched local kids just like him rise through the youth team to become superstars in the Bristol City squad. He knew, of course, that it wasn’t like the old days anymore, with heroes from down the road, slightly hungover, catching the bus to big matches. But, still, there were always a handful of boys who were born in Bristol, trained with Bristol City, and ended up scoring before roaring crowds for Bristol City.

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When he was a kid, he’d always tell himself, even if he was good enough to one day be approached by Manchester United, he’d never sign with them. Football was about community, the people you grew up with, where you came from. Bristol City belonged to the people of Bristol – to him – in some tangible way. To play for City would’ve been perfection, all he’d ever wanted.

Paul trained and trained, through his schooldays and into his twenties. He played semi-professionally. He’d practise endlessly, working on his fitness all week, only to be outclassed by younger players who’d been smoking and drinking 10 minutes before. In October 2007, a few weeks before they sent their email to Pohnpei, he travelled up to Carlisle for a minor cup tie – an epic journey the length of the country. He was played for six minutes.

Paul began to realise that he’d never make it, even at the most modest level of professional football. He lacked the magic, the talent. He became a football reporter. He studied Italian at university, and found a job translating stories for the Football Italia website. Fourteen-hour days for £14,500 per year, living in central London. It was boring, tiring and he was skint. Football had lead him to disillusionment once more.

So it wasn’t as if Paul expected anything to come of the email to Pohnpei. After all, he knew by now that he wasn’t one of those people for whom exciting things happen. He was an average man, destined for average things.

Then he got a reply. It was from Charles Musana, who’d been head of the Pohnpei FA, but was soon moving to the UK, to Walthamstow. He’d be happy to meet them for a chat.

Paul and Matt met Charles in Piccadilly Circus, and took him over to Notting Hill, to the Malabar curry house. Charles told them that in Pohnpei there are endemic problems with substance abuse, and terrible rates of obesity. For 15 years, he’d been trying to get football going on the island. They’d had a coach, at one point, who’d come from Israel. People had got their hopes up. They’d played in the South Pacific Games and got battered, 13s and 14s–0. Worse, they’d also lost 16–1 to Guam, an American territory that’s viewed with a sense of envious awe in the region.

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The loss hurt the people who played, it hurt their families, it hurt the reputation of football. The sport became seen as something not worth bothering about. It had been forgotten entirely, except for a small group of guys. But they were good – talented and athletic. They had potential. All they needed was someone to show them how it’s done…

***

Matt and Paul listened, to stories about the drug use and the obesity and the humiliations. By the time the meal was over, they didn’t think their joke was that funny anymore. They began to think about it. Paul had been coached for years,sometimes by brilliant men. He knew how it was done. They talked about it. They became excited. They were going to do it. Fly to Pohnpei, do some coaching, form a side. Get a win.

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First thing: money. A grand each for airfare, plus more to pay for Musana, who was going to join them in order to make the necessary introductions. To be taken seriously, they’d need to bring kit for the players. They wrote to every team in Britain, asking for shirts and boots. Everyone said no, except Norwich, who sold them a box of returned shirts for £2 each, and Yeovil Town, who sent an entire set for free. A further £200 went on cheap boots and cones. Paul trained harder than he’d ever done before – sprint intervals, long-distance running, lifting weights. He quit his job. They booked their flights, and on 21 July 2009, they flew off for a two-and-a-half-week recce.

Palm trees, blue seas, piles of burning rubbish. Out of the car window, en route to the hotel, Pohnpei looked like a cross between a third world country and paradise. Musana had told the islanders, in advance, that some free coaching was going to take place at the pitch at 6pm that evening, after the worst of the heat. They were picked up in a fire truck and driven there by a friend of Musana’s. All the way, Matt couldn’t stop worrying: what if too many people turned up? He’d be exposed. After all, who the hell was he? Not a real coach. He’d never coached anyone! But hang on, what if no one turned up at all? And what if the people who did were useless?

He’d  played semi-professionally. He’d been coached by brilliant men. When you think about it, he was ridiculously overqualified.

The fire truck pulled up. Pohnpei has one of the wettest climates on Earth, and the pitch was worryingly flooded. There were puddles and basic goal frames and there were toads, hopping around. He quickly counted the number of players there were waiting for them. One.

Slowly, though, more emerged. Some had walked for miles. Others had been passing and had joined in, hoping they might be able to pinch a free pair of boots. They had a kick around, a bit of five-a-side.

It was the same the next day, and the next. Charles had been right about the levels of athleticism: before the islanders were old enough for the junk food to settle in their flesh, they were fit. There was a 16-year-old called Roger Nakasone who had astonishing pace and stamina. He’d do backflips on the pitch for no reason at all. Ryan Johnson, the first player to arrive, was an incredible finisher. But Paul didn’t feel like a coach. He wasn’t in control. Nothing was organised, people would drift in and out, turning up some days, not the next, have a bit of kick about, slope away. It wasn’t training. What was it? The beginning of something? Maybe not.

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Matt busied himself by taking charge of island politics – meeting and greeting, smiling and nodding. Paul was polite, nervous, reluctant to offend; Matt was the man who knew what he wanted to say and was rarely afraid to say it. He organised chats with the lieutenant-governor and the sports minister. He wanted to get football going in the schools, so arranged an appointment with the education minister. The minister fell asleep.

***

The most important meeting was with Jim Tobin, the head of the island’s Olympic Committee. A man of power, energy and size, Jim had come to Pohnpei as a Peace Corps Volunteer, fallen in love with a local woman and never left. Before the appointment, Paul had his doubts about Jim. These administrators tended to be the worst kinds of people – men in suits who couldn’t run 100m yet leech the juice out of sport, sitting down to their paid-for lunches, telling each other it’s all down to them. Besides, Paul knew what he and Matt looked like to everyone. Chancers.

But Jim was everything that neither of them were expecting. He told them, “This is exactly what we need. Football should be encouraged. I’m going to do everything in my power to help you.”

Then, they had to go home.

Back in the UK, Paul asked himself whether he’d really continue. But, then again, what choice did he have? He’d quit his job, had already sunk more than £3,000 into the project. He felt like a gambler who’d thrown too much at the wheel to go to bed. And, back there in Pohnpei, he’d sensed it – the football that he loved but had long ago given up on, the football of pluck and brotherhood and meaning.

What they needed was sponsorship. Matt led the efforts, while Paul trained ever harder. They approached the newspapers with their story, in an attempt to raise their profile. On 14 August 2009, The Sun’s website ran a headline, “Brits to Coach ‘Worst Ever Side’”. They had found that line funny themselves, all those months ago.

Now, they were mortified.

But there was a greater unforeseen problem than The Sun. It had arrived in the form of a phone call, back in March. Matt and Paul had just left the gym, when Matt’s father rang.

“You’re in,” he said.

“No, I’m out,” said Matt. “We’ve just been to the gym.”

“No, you’re in,” said his dad.

“No, Dad. I’m out.”

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“No, USC. You’re in.”

Months ago, Matt had applied to study film at the University of Southern California. Just as Paul had always dreamed of playing football, Matt had wanted to be a film-maker. Nobody really expected him to get a place at USC. Its School of Cinematic Arts is legendary, with benefactors including Spielberg and Lucas. Only 25 people are accepted every year. If Paul was going to go back to Pohnpei, he’d have to do so alone, and without money – their sponsorship drive had failed.

Paul trained. He worked on coaching plans. He borrowed £2,000 from his girlfriend and his brother, while Jim Tobin offered to cover his hotel costs for his second visit. On 25 September 2009, he finally arrived back in Pohnpei and found help in the form of the best football player on the island. Dilshan Senarathgoda had been born in Sri Lanka, but had lived in Pohnpei for nine years. He’d been visiting his family in Manila at the time of their previous visit and had been devastated when a series of flight cancellations meant that he’d missed the chance to train with Paul. But now, he was back. And he was brilliant.

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While Paul coached the players, Dilshan coached Paul in the cultural rules that he’d need to work around if he was to succeed in establishing a new and thriving culture of football in Pohnpei, and get a national team a win. Paul had been frustrated by the lack of punctuality shown by the locals. “We’re on island time” was the excuse, but some players walked five miles in bare feet, every day, to play. Important, too, was an understanding of the strict age hierarchy that was always respected. You did not challenge your elders, especially those in your family.

But most crucial of all, for the playing of football, was the Pohnpeian’s reluctance to shout or show aggression. Theirs was a small world. Falling out with a person in a public way could trigger a grudge that could last years. If you raised your voice at someone, you were expected to go to their house and apologise to their entire family. If Paul lost it with any of his players, he might never see them again.

And then he had his skin to worry about. Two different modes of anxiety were triggered by Paul’s whiteness. Pohnpei had been occupied by the Japanese, the Germans and the Spanish in the past and there was still a significant American presence in Pohnpei today. Would he seem like just another arrogant, bossy Westerner? It was his pale skin, too, that lead to agony on the non-metaphysical kind. Paul spent one scorching day helping mark the pitch out with pots of paint and rollers.

He’d rubbed an entire bottle of sun lotion into himself, but it had dripped off with his sweat. Until that evening, he’d not appreciated how devastating sunburn can be. He ached and sickened, his skin peeling in layers down to the flesh. It became infected, covered in sores and boils. But it was a turning point for Paul and his tentative authority over players. They realised how serious he was.

The second galvanising event was his and Dilshan’s creation of an island league. If there was going to be a Pohnpei national side, then there would need to be teams for them to pick from. The College of Micronesia already had one – they were in. Dilshan had his own, called the Island Pit-Bulls – they were in. There was the Seventh-day Adventist’s SDA FC. They put together an International FC of any resident foreigners that were up for it. Suddenly, the men had something to train for. They had fixtures, start times, competition. They had structure. They had football.

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Just about. Paul’s most naturally talented player was Joseph Welson. 16 years old, he shot like a rocket – when he could be bothered to try. One evening, Paul was taking his boots off after a session, with the players all around him, when he saw a crumpled piece of paper on the pitch. He could just make out a picture on it – someone in a Yeovil football shirt. His heart lurched. It was a print-out of the story from The Sun site, about the “worst side ever”. The entire team had seen it. Dilshan reassured him. “Most of them laughed it off. Joseph was the only one who got really angry. He tore the page up.”

But it wasn’t as if Joseph needed an excuse like this to be angry. He was from a poor family and had failed to excel at school. All his life, he’d been made to feel second rate. For Paul, Joseph summed up the island: soaring potential, if only he could fight free of his problems. He’d habitually turn up late, even though he and his brother – goalkeeper Charles – lived near the ground. He’d mock Paul in Pohnpeian. He’d take the piss, to his face, in a language he couldn’t understand. But Paul kept trying, telling him, “Joseph, you’re a seriously good player, more talented than I’ll ever be.” But Joseph didn’t even make eye contact. He didn’t give a shit.

Paul selected his Pohnpei national side, and started playing them against other league teams. Throughout one game, Joseph was completely lethargic. The players around him were showing verve and fight, demonstrating huge improvements, not just in play but in volume, shouting at each other, “Pass, pass”, “Here, here”. But not Joseph.

After he’d repeatedly failed to turn up for training, Paul made a decision. The next match that Pohnpei played, he told his reluctant star, “You’ll be playing in the second half. I’m not putting you on until then.” Publicly, deliberately, Joseph walked off the pitch. Obeying island rules, his younger brother Charles followed him. This, Paul knew, was huge. Joseph sent a message, via another player, that he’d quit the team. Paul felt as if he’d failed.

Paul was living alone in a cheap hotel room, so poor he was living off goodwill and plain pasta. In Pohnpei, even fruit was too expensive to buy. Because of shipping costs, an apple could cost as much as £2. His weight was falling and his debts were building. Discipline in the team was beginning to dissolve. Fewer and fewer team members were showing up regularly for training. In a way, Paul could understand it. Why would they bother, only to play, yet again, against the past-it island “All Stars”?

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One evening, Paul was on Skype, outlining the latest news to Matt, over in LA. What would turn things around, they realised, was a mission. A win against someone significant. Nobody seemed to be especially active in the sport in the neighbouring islands. “There’s only one place we can really get to, where there would be any team to play against,” mused Paul. Instantly, they came to the same conclusion: Guam.

If you’re a young man living in Pohnpei, Guam is like paradise. A US territory with a large military base, it has big roads, beach resorts, strip clubs, Budweiser, McDonald’s and an annual Fifa grant of between £150,000 and £400,000 for football. A weekend visit to the place is a mini-break to heaven, and almost as costly. Return airfare for a 16-man squad would be around £10,000.

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But Paul was desperate. At the next training session, he gathered the team. “I’ve been disappointed that a few of you haven’t been turning up to training,” he said. “That’s going to have to change. We’re going to take a Pohnpei team to Guam and so we need everyone turning up to every session. If you’re serious about football, you must be there.”

The result was immediate. Players stepped forward, apologised for tardiness, promised to do more. News of the Guam tour spread around the island so quickly that Jim Tobin demanded a meeting the next day.

“I really respect what you’re going to do,” he said. “But it’s very, very difficult to get sponsorship for a tour.”

He was right. Who’d want to throw in thousands of pounds to have their corporate identity printed on the shirts of the team that was now known as “the world’s worst”? Not for the first time, Paul approached Fifa for help. After all, wasn’t he sacrificing everything to carry out exactly what its mission statement promised, to: “Improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally in the light of its unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values, particularly through youth and development programmes”? He sent an outline of his plans. Fifa replied, “Thank you for your email, but I am afraid we cannot help with individual funding.”

Off the island, Matt made presentations to several businesses. He got nowhere. After approaching more than 50 organisations, the nearest they’d got was a chicken-feed company, who set a top limit of £2,000 before pulling out. But in Pohnpei, the squad were becoming more and more excited. They had no idea how unlikely it was that this tour would happen. The date was shifted back three months, from August to October. And then, a miracle. Matt called a family friend, Larry Coyne. He owned an air-cargo business that specialised in obscure places. “I’m in,” he said. “We’ll get you the £10,000 if you can get some shirts made with Coyne Airways as the sponsor.”

When three matches were scheduled on Guam, between 2 and 6 October, Joseph reappeared. He seemed different. He listened. He cared. He still wasn’t smiling much, but in his return practice game, he scored a hat-trick.

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As the tour approached, Matt arrived from LA. On the pitch, he watched a different team. They saw themselves as professionals now. A complete transformation. And not just in the players. During one session, the team were slacking, and Paul erupted, furious. Matt watched smiling. This wasn’t the polite and nervous young man he’d left behind.

While Paul took a week off and returned to the UK, Matt worked on difficult star player Joseph. It was his birthday, so Matt made sure there was a cake. He filled him with positive reinforcement, making him feel good when he was good. And then, a drunk driver collided with Joseph. His pelvis and both legs were broken. It was only a whip round by the footballers that raised the money to fly him to hospital in Manila. If he had stayed for treatment on the impoverished island, he’d have died. The tour arrived, and their star was gone.

The first match. Pohnpei versus Rovers FC. The team was in a state of tension never before seen by Paul or Matt. As the game began, the coaches abandoned all hope of appearing professional. They tore up and down the sidelines, swearing and gesticulating to men and to gods. Pohnpei were playing better than the Rovers, but they conceded a goal. Then Pohnpei equalised. Then it was 2-1, then 3-1. It had been the most important game in Pohnpeian football for at least 10 years. And they’d lost.

The next day: Pohnpei versus The Crushers. That morning, Matt played the team a DVD of the Rovers game. It was a risk, but the players saw how unlucky they’d been. Just before kick-off, Paul gathered them round.

“Yesterday you played the best game of your lives and you lost. Today, if you do the same, you’ll win. Up Pohnpei!” They marched onto the pitch. They scored. They scored again. And again. And again. 7-1.

It was a better result than any of them could have dreamed of. By the end of it, Paul was a wreck. The players were in tears. As they left for home, it didn’t even matter that much that the final fixture, against Guam’s youth team, was lost 3-0. Pride had come back to Pohnpei. And it remained. Today, some of the players have moved on – Joseph, his health now recovered, is a chicken farmer in the US – but there are 10 teams in the league.

***

Back in the Hammersmith Costa, Paul scrapes at a bit of dried froth from the edge of his empty cappuccino mug. “People see league tables of the most obese nations on Earth and everyone has a great laugh about it,” he says. “But do they ever stop to think that it’s because people can’t afford to eat anything but junk food? Or that it’s because kids are told there’s no way they can get anywhere in sport and because there’s no development funding? You know, I started the project in this selfish way, but by the end of it I’d become a real idealist. It pisses me off that that corner of the world is seen as a joke.”

Paul returned to the UK to no job, £10,000 of debt and the mists of depression. In 2012, he published a book about it. But he remains nearly £8,000 in debt, and gloomy.

“In Pohnpei, I found a sense of what the game actually stands for,” he says. “I fell back in love with the game, but only in that context. I don’t really follow the Premier League anymore. I’ve watched five games since I’ve been home.

“A part of me is still out there. I feel I’ve left the job undone. At the moment, I’m just trying to work out a way to go back.”

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