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Up Pohnpei - it's Paul's island dream

PUBLISHED: 17:23 24 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:54 24 August 2010

Pohnpei Premier League winners Island Pitbulls

Pohnpei Premier League winners Island Pitbulls

By Ian Cooper HE S THE youngest international manager in the world, travelling 8,000 miles to coach the lowest-ranked country in the world – to say Paul Watson likes a challenge is an understatement. When the Hammersmith football journalist announced in J

By Ian Cooper

HE'S THE youngest international manager in the world, travelling 8,000 miles to coach the lowest-ranked country in the world - to say Paul Watson likes a challenge is an understatement.

When the Hammersmith football journalist announced in June 2009 that he intended to re-launch the football fortunes of tiny Pacific island team Pohnpei in Micronesia, it is fair to say he wasn't quite prepared for the scale of the task which awaited him.

His goal, alongside friend Matthew Conrad, was first to establish a Pohnpei football league, and then to unite the state with its neighbouring islands and put a Federated States of Micronesia team on the map.

Eight months and several round-the-world-trips later, Watson and Conrad have accomplished the first part of that mission - the first ever Pohnpei Premier League ran from October to December. Now for the hard part...

"It's become a bit of an obsession, we're as dedicated now as people who do charity work," explains Watson.

"It sort of came about through a number of coincidences. I was playing football over here at a decent level, so one day me and Matthew decided to see if we would be able to play football internationally somewhere. We knew we'd have to look quite a long way down the rankings!

"We sent a couple of emails, and ended up meeting Charles Masana, a Pohnpei football legend who now lived in Chingford. He told us there wasn't really a Pohnpei team, but having played at a decent level meant I could take on a coaching role.

"So we just decided to give it a go, thinking - how hard can it be?"

Quite hard, it turns out, and the hurdles are not restricted to the pitch. Sitting 1,800 miles north of Papua New Guinea, Pohnpei is one of the wettest places in the world, where it rains every single day.

Having convinced a sceptical Pohnpei population of 36,000 that he was serious, Watson's next task was to stage Pohnpei's first competitive club competition in years, the Liberation Day Games in August and September which was also won by the Pitbulls.

Then came the Premier League, fought out between five teams - the Pitbulls, SDA, International FC, C.O.M-FSM FC and the Island Warriors. The Pitbulls triumphed 5-2 in a final-day showdown against SDA.

That allowed Watson and Conrad to begin selecting the 16 best league players who would go on to represent Pohnpei state.

And that's the next hurdle: establishing communication between Pohnpei and the surrounding states of Chuuk, Yap and Kosrae.

FIFA will not recognise anything other than an FSM team - a daunting prospect.

Pohnpei have a stadium, the PICS field in the island's capital city Kolonia, but there is little other infrastructure and development is slow in the absence of funding or sponsorship.

"It's baby steps really. Each time I go I try and bring equipment, they can't get hold of boots over there so I bring some out," added Watson. "Footballs as well, if you lose a ball out of the stadium it goes into a swamp or a marsh - it's gone, you don't get it back!

"I try to get out there every couple of months. We now have a Pohnpei kit and a squad of 16 players to train

"It might have started as a bit of a gimmicky thing, but that changed when we got out there and met the people. They have got the enthusiasm and the skill, they just have no help, you've got all these fantastic athletes with nothing to do.

"We have stands and a running track. It does rain a lot though, everything rots and floods, and there is the odd toad on the pitch, it's certainly not unknown to play the odd one-two with a frog!"

The enormous distance between the four states means that a recognised Micronesian team which could take part in World Cup qualifiers -Watson's ultimate goal - is unlikely to materialise just yet.

In the meantime Pohnpei team will fly the flag for the region in a friendly against Guam this summer, while Watson aims to organise another club competition alongside the league.

But for now, Watson is just happy to be proving the doubters wrong.

"When someone asks me what I do, I tend to just tell them I do something else, people don't really talk to me at parties any more!

"But football in Pohnpei is really going places, we're out there to achieve something and we won't stop until it's done."

To sponsor Pohnpei soccer, email pohnpeisoccer@gmail.com


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