Matthew Conrad (far right) and Paul Watson (far left) with their Pohnpei national team before flying to play in Guam. (All photos courtesy of Matthew Conrad.)
Matthew Conrad was a man with a dream: he wanted to coach an international soccer team. The one tiny issue was that he'd never coached a soccer team before—not a school team, not a squad of paunchy, hungover men slumping their way into a park on a Saturday morning, and definitely not a team with international ambitions (if not quite international caliber).
So, he had two options. The first involved finding out all there was to know about coaching, potentially getting some kind of qualification, tracking down an amateur team that would let him coach them, and slowly working his way up the ladder to the rarified echelons of international soccer. The second, slightly easier option was to find a national team so shitty that no one wanted to touch them, providing him with a spot to swoop in. Matthew chose the second option and, after a bit of back-and-forth, arranged to train the team of a small island called Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia.
Pohnpei had never won a game, which wasn’t that surprising considering the fact that the island has a 90 percent obesity rate, the locals were all addicted to a psychoactive plant called the betel nut, and the only available soccer field was infested with giant toads. The guys from Pohnpei had also recently suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the nearby island of Guam, who had beaten them 15-0, and didn’t seem particularly inspired by soccer until Matt and his journalist friend Paul flew over and took their team on.
Eventually, Matt and Paul had taken an inexperienced bunch of amateurs and led them to victory against a team from their rival island—exactly like the plot of The Mighty Ducks, just with some betel-nut-chewing Micronesians instead of American schoolchildren. I spoke to Matt to find out how exactly they went about doing that.
VICE: What inspired you to travel to Pohnpei and coach this team? It seems like a pretty unusual thing to do.
Matt: Steve McClaren. After England failed to qualify for the Euros, we thought that, if he could manage England, surely we were at least capable of managing a team who had never won a game. Another inspiration was the way the media has ruined soccer. The hyperbolic insanity that surrounds modern soccer and the character of many of the players is frustrating. I love soccer and I love the Premier League, but it’s a total circus, with the media behaving as a sort of demented, meth-head ringleader.
So you became Steve McClaren minus the media madness.
Yeah. Without sounding like megalomaniacs, we wanted to create our own little soccer world where we would have total creative control. But ultimately, our inspiration to coach the team was the place and the players. We originally intended to play for the team. It was going to be some cool, self-aggrandizing bar anecdote that we could tell for years to come. But once we went there and realized that we could give something rather than take something, we decided to install ourselves as coaches. At the time, it made us the youngest international coaches in the world.
How exactly did you go about setting yourselves up as the team’s coaches?
We sent an email out to some dodgy address that we found on some crumby, text-only website, and heard nothing for weeks. Then, out of the blue, the head of Pohnpei’s old FA got in touch, telling us that he was moving to Walthamstow in London. We took him out for a curry and got him onside. I think the lamb bhuna sealed it. It wasn’t a coup or even a putsch; it was more of an amicable, poppadom-fuelled takeover. Once we got to the island, we were given a lot of encouragement by the local National Olympic Committee, run by this massive, hulking ex-pat from Montana called Jim Tobin. He saw we had come a long way on our own dime and were serious about helping, so he gave us a lot of logistical and moral support.
Matt coaching the team.
The island has a 90 percent obesity rate, right? What steps did you take to keep your team in shape?
Pohnpei didn’t have a culture of obesity until the arrival of the US around the time of World War II. They brought soda, beer, sweets, Spam, and all those tasty, cheap, non-perishable, high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat goodies. It’s very sad, because an indigenous Pohnpeian subsistence diet is very healthy. On the team, we did take fitness very seriously, mainly because we knew that it’s an easy way to have an edge over a more experienced opposition playing on home turf, which is what Guam would be, and we were planning on playing a team from there.
We only had one technically obese first-team player on the roster and he was very successful in losing weight. His transformation was miraculous, but the whole team got in great shape. We did periodical bleep tests to make sure no one was skimping on training while we were off-island, and the boys really did us proud.
I’ve heard that Pohnpei has a major problem with betel nut addiction, too. Was that an issue?
I found it to be distinctly unaddictive. The two times I tried it Pohnpeian-style, I put too much lime in and lost functionality of my mouth for 24 hours. In Pohnpei, they take the betel nut, which is like a smooth horse chestnut, put in half a cigarette and some lime [as in the stuff that the mob uses to dissolve bodies], wrap it in a leaf and chew it. The result is oral paralysis and a constant stream of red juice streaming out of your monged-out mouth.
Many Pohnpeians’ gums and teeth have been destroyed by the stuff, as in rotted to the gum, but they don’t see it as a vice. It grows all over, so it’s a hard sell to tell them that it’s bad for you. Betel nut does get you pretty buzzed, so we outlawed it in our training. We wanted to instil in our players the mindset that they were athletes who had to take care of themselves. That was a big breakthrough, actually.
And your field suffered from a chronic toad infestation. What was the deal with that?
I mean, there were just a shit load of toads around—what else can I say? There was a gully around the field that was constantly full of water, and they laid their eggs there. For large parts of the year, the field was very marshy. From what I remember from prep-school ecology, those are perfect toad-farming conditions.
I seem to remember the same thing. Was there any other wildlife that caused problems for you?
You haven’t really experienced Pohnpei until you’ve been chased by a pack of feral dogs.
Did you come up against any cultural obstacles?
The language was a factor. Like morons, we just assumed that everyone spoke English perfectly, and that just wasn’t the case. Pohnpeians are often too shy or polite to say they don’t understand you. That was another seismic cultural difference from the UK. We love to shout and chant and generally be loutish, especially in soccer. It was a massive challenge to get Pohnpeians to be vocal.
You managed to get sponsorship for the team and get a uniform done up. How did that come about?
Our sponsor was a company called Coyne Airways. They specialize in getting airfreight to really inaccessible and challenging places, like Iraq and Afghanistan, so it felt perfect when they got involved. The owner, Larry Coyne, is a very kind and infinitely patient football fan who believed in what we were doing. He supports QPR, so has endured plenty of heartache, and he probably wanted to take charge of his own soccer destiny.
You eventually took the boys to Guam, where they won their first-ever match against a team from there. How was that?
We didn’t beat Guam National, we beat a Guam Premier League side called Crushers FC. But, without resorting to tabloid hyperbole, the victory really was a historic moment for Micronesia. It really said, "Pohnpei is serious about soccer and we are no pushovers." The toughest guy on our team, a dude called Denson, was in tears. Then there was that awful stat of never having won a game, so when that whistle went at the end of the match, it was such a proud moment. The players and the coaches had put everything into it and the win was vindication for two years of really hard work. It was one of the most satisfying things I've ever been a part of. I'll never forget it.
I understand you’re not living in Micronesia any more. Is the Pohnpei team still going strong now that you aren’t on the island?
Football in Pohnpei and Micronesia as a whole is going relatively well. The Pohnpei Premier League that was instituted under our regime is still going and adding new teams each season. We exported soccer into other Micronesian islands as well, particularly Yap and Chuuk. Yap has a killer field—almost zero toads. It is well-drained, has functional floodlights, a locker room, toilets, the whole shebang. I visited Yap to help start their pilot program and, I must admit, I was extremely jealous. Still, Pohnpei remains the strongest team in the Federated States of Micronesia and recently beat a team of Chuuk and Yap’s finest 4-3. I’m told it was a corker.
What's next for Micronesian soccer, then?
We're trying to get the Federated States of Micronesia into FIFA. The Pohnpei Football Association, run by Steve Finnen, applied for membership and is currently awaiting FIFA inspectors to judge whether we qualify for developmental assistance. Being in FIFA has massive perks; once you're in that club, soccer really has a chance to succeed. Guam was where we were ten years ago. Now I would say they have a soccer infrastructure there that could rival anywhere in the world.
Great. Thanks, Matt.
Matt has managed to raise the money to fund a documentary about his time as Pohnpei’s coach using Kickstarter. It will be available to watch some time this autumn.
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