Does the world need FIFA? That’s a question often asked, particularly in recent years, and results from some parts of the globe neglected by FIFA suggest perhaps not always.
At the 2011 Pacific Games, Tuvalu beat one FIFA member in American Samoa and drew with another, the Cook Islands, despite being shunned by the world body, but recent results from the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) are even better.
When United States attorney Peter Coleman arrived in CNMI - a United States-controlled territory in the North Pacific – a few years ago on work, he tried to find a game for his soccer-mad son but there was none to be found. Coleman organised some and ended up founding a national team, which played its first game in 2007 but remains on the outskirts of the international game. Coleman has since moved on. But the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association (NIMFA) goes from strength to strength as results from last week’s East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) Under-14s championships in Beijing demonstrate.
A 15-0 thrashing from regional powerhouse Japan and a 9-0 pasting from 2010 World Cup finalists North Korea are not results to dwell on, but others, including a draw with the hosts, were far more impressive. China - less a regional force on the field but a major commercial one off it and still a one-time World Cup finalist – has a population of 1.3 billion. The population of the 14 islands in the CNMI is officially 44,000. In Beijing, NIMFA’s Under-14s forced an incredible 1-1 draw with the Chinese.
That result was no fluke. Ranked 177 by FIFA, Mongolia could only draw 2-2 draw with the Northern Mariana team, whose nickname is the Blue Ayuyu, the word used in the local Chamarro dialect to describe the Coconut Crab, a local delicacy.
The Blue Ayuyu boys brought two sides to Beijing. The second string lost twice to neighbours Guam – 2-0 and 4-0 – but the first XI went on to record twin wins. Chinese Taipei (Taiwan to most of us) have a FIFA ranking of 169, but were beaten 2-0, while Macau – FIFA ranking 198 – were beaten 1-0. “I am very pleasantly surprised about the performance and result of our U14 Boys team in Beijing last week,” said NIMFA president Jerry Tan told local newspaper the Saipan Tribune with some understatement. “Being the newest and smallest FA (football association) of AFC (Asian Football Confederation), two wins and two draws is an amazing result,”
Tan credited twice-yearly youth leagues ran by NIMFA as key to achieving two wins and two draws against FIFA members, all of whom have a considerably larger playing pool and FIFA funding beyond the dreams of anyone in Northern Mariana. All FIFA members get a minimum of U$D 250,000 per year from the world body’s financial assistance programme. In 2010, FIFA was awash with so much cash that all members got one-off bonus of U$D 300,000. Except it wasn’t a one-off. In 2011, FIFA gave all 208 members another ‘one-off’ bonus of an extra U$D 250,000.
And then there is FIFA’s GOAL programme. Grants go towards projects such as pitches or training centres and are typically U$D 400,000 a go. Guam – a FIFA member since 1996 but also a non-independent country administered by the US – has secured three tranches of GOAL funding worth a total of U$D1.2 million over the past decade.
Helped by neighbours Guam, Northern Mariana joined the East Asian Football Federation, which is a subsidiary of the Asian Football Confederation. NIMFA is also an associate member of the AFC but further progress looks difficult.
In 2010, FIFA set up a Small Nations Working Group and visited some aspiring members, such as Tuvalu and Jersey. Northern Mariana were shunned. A subsequent report ranked potential members in three categories. Independent states were the priority. Places like Northern Mariana were ranked second. The group has since dissolved and its leader, Urs Kluser, left FIFA. His chief cohort, England’s Geoff Thompson, is no longer a FIFA vice president, leaving Northern Mariana only local avenues to explore.
In July, the Northern Mariana senior side will take part in the preliminaries for the 2013 EAFF championship. Their debut in 2008 produced three losses in three games but Guam only edged home 2-0. Tan is hoping for a win to boost his islands credibility at the AFC. As Northern Mariana’s schoolboys showed in Beijing, the size of the playing pool or even recognition by FIFA is no barrier to success.
Steve is the author of Outcasts! The Lands that FIFA Forgot.