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Nearly a decade after trying to represent a nation — any nation — at football, Paul Watson remains more involved than ever before. But personal representation was an initial fleeting thought; his ongoing battle is for the country he discovered, and continues to campaign for.
Seven years ago Watson (along with friend Matthew Conrad) set out with the fanciful dream of gaining a national cap for one of, if not the single worst football team in the world. The pair settled on Pohnpei, a tiny, isolated island in the Pacific and set to work, spending two years saving up what little money they had to fund the trip, with an account of the whole adventure documented in his brilliant book, Up Pohnpei.
By Watson’s own admission, the idea that two English lads could gain citizenship, play in an official match and gain a cap was at best optimistic, and in reality, a fantasy. The actual result of that initial trip has been far more fascinating, with this special little island still very much a part of Watson’s life.
Watson ended up as Pohnpei’s national coach and — without revealing too much about his time on the island — left with the team, and its infrastructure, in a much better state than when he arrived. The real battle, however, has been since his coaching days, trying to earn Pohnpei official FIFA recognition so that they can receive the funding they so desperately need. The process is painstakingly frustrating and seven years on, very little has actually changed.
“FIFA recognition is the only way being self-sufficient,” Watson explains. “Pohnpei, along with three other islands — Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap — make up the Federal States of Micronesia and that’s the ‘nation’ we’re trying to get officially recognised.”
As a non-governmental organization, FIFA is legally obliged to accept membership applications for states that want to join, but the reality is a process that is deliberately complex and tiresome, seemingly with the intention of dissuading countries from applying in the first place.
Watson describes how in the beginning naivety played a large part of his own misunderstanding. He says, “We thought they (Pohnpei) had never tried. We were young and brash and assumed that if a nation wanted to be in FIFA they would have got in by now, why wouldn’t they be? They actually first applied in the 1990s, but have been on this indefinite hiatus since.
“You think FIFA processes would be clear, but they’re not. You fill in a form, send it off and wait, then you get contacted, reply, and wait more. You then need a site visit. We got that but it took three years, after being scheduled three times and cancelled three times. They did eventually visit in 2014 and said everything was fine, but then we had to wait for a decision to be made at the next congress meeting. We’ve been told that six times. We’re still waiting”
FIFA splits its funding geographically. As far as they’re concerned, if a region gains extra members then that is another hand to feed. By drawing out the process for as long as possible, and ensuring it’s an “insane mess of legal documents, constitutions and standing committees” they haven’t actually refused any membership application.
Watson explains, “The waiting process allows them to not say no. They (FIFA) hope people give up, which they often do. The Micronesian FA is terrified of doing anything that rocks the boat so it just sits and waits. Countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are in the same boat. These are little islands who need help with the process, but are getting zero assistance from FIFA. What they actually get is an email a year later saying ‘You never did this’, and it could something as small as ticking a box on a form.”
The end goal for Watson is to help Pohnpei, through Micronesia, achieve FIFA recognition, and the subsequent funding that would improve the islands’ football infrastructure from the ground up. He recently hired a football coach, far more qualified than he ever was, to go to Pohnpei and spend three months coaching there.
“It’s one of these roles that sounds like an easy sell in the beginning, but applicants fade away when they actually appreciate what’s involved,” says Watson. “You’re a long way from home, fairly cut off, in an unpaid role. We can accommodate you, but that’s about it.”
Eventually, Chris Smith, a man Watson describes as a “miracle” managed to convince Watson he was up to the task: “I actually tried to discourage Chris, but he had worked with street children in Vietnam and could deal with tough conditions. He had the right temperament and the more I spoke to him the more it fell into place.”
Smith is currently on the island, coaching schoolchildren, and perhaps more importantly, teaching coaches, so they can continue the coaching once he leaves. The only way this has been possible is by Watson tapping into the niche market of random replica football shirts.
“I came up with the idea of selling replica Pohnpei shirts to fund his flights. Shirts are the first time there has been any sign of revenue. At the profit margin we’ve got, what we’ve sold so far has paid for his flights, as well as a load of kit for him to take out there with him. Any further sales can go straight to the island. We’re selling shirts to Japan, USA, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Italy — it’s a lovely thing because it brings people into the project.”
The shirt sales aren’t part of any grand manufacturing process, simply Watson taking orders personally, packing the shirts up that are in his house and walking down to the post office to send them on their way.
In addition, Watson helps through his role as a director at CONIFA (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the football federation for all associations outside FIFA. It supports “nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories.”
Members include Padania, an area in northern Italy made up of eight regions that have campaigned for independence from the rest of the country, Aymará (the indigenous nation in the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America) and the Chagos Islands (a group of tropical atolls in the Indian Ocean).
The organisation has 44 members, represents 310 million people and acts as a bridge to FIFA. One volunteer is a sports lawyer, who helps with application processes. Watson explains, “There are strict guidelines on entry, but if you have a legitimate identity, historical precedent, linguistic and ethnic identity, we can’t say it’s not valid. Crimea, for example, meets the guidelines. Padania may not be people’s favourites (due to their hardline, right-wing politics), but who are we to decide who isn’t a country? The beauty is you can have Padania playing the Romany people, hugging and wishing each other well — where else would you get that? Football has that power that not many other things do.”
A few years ago when the constant stalling in the FIFA application process gradually led to players leaving Pohnpei for better opportunities, Watson found himself getting more and more upset about the whole situation. He says, “That lapse was quite a painful thing to watch. Getting Chris there has been an incredible relief; I hadn’t realised how sad the whole process had made me.”
A film, that Watson has co-wrote, is in the casting stage with the hope that “the media splash can help people buy into the idea”. Through CONIFA, the shirt sales, and anything else Watson can do, he is emotionally entwined within this tiny island on the other side of the world, and probably will be for the rest of his life. The book he finished five years ago was just the beginning.
You can get your own Pohnpei shirt through Paul’s twitter page.