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Paul C. Watson

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Can a Foreigner Lead a National Football Team?

Posted: 16/02/2012 23:00

At around the same time that Fabio Capello arrived in England with a seven-figure salary and a phone book-sized list of honours, I took a very different (and unpaid) post on the tiny Micronesian island of Pohnpei.

As a jobbing semi-professional footballer, I had run into a quarter-life crisis. Realising that my childhood dream of playing for England had become a little unrealistic, I went in search of a chance to taste international football by finding world football's ultimate minnows and coaching them. The Micronesian island of Pohnpei had never won a game and had recently been demolished 16-1 by Guam. I had found my match.

While Capello was being grilled by the English press, I fought my own battle for acceptance in a small Pacific Island community where I attempted to build a football structure almost from scratch.

I'll happily accept that the link is tenuous and I may be flattering myself, but there are certain parallels in what myself and the ex-Juventus tactician were trying to do. We both had visions for our respective sides but significant cultural obstacles in our path.

Steely disciplinarian Capello declared war on WAG culture and the celebrity lifestyle of England's stars. At the same time I tentatively attempted to wean my players off betel nut (an intoxicating chew almost ubiquitous in Pohnpei), fought against players using 'island time' and turning up to training sessions an hour later than the announced start time and forced several reticent players to wear boots rather than play in bare feet.

Initially I cut an awkward figure in Pohnpei. The harder I tried to create an English team on a small Micronesian island, the less I achieved. It was only when I understood that I had to learn from the players as much as I had to teach them that things started to happen. I won my battle against betel nut, but only after I had tried it myself. I won the battle against chronic lateness, but only after I visited players' houses and realised the distances they were walking to get to training. If nothing else I was willing to laugh at myself and how foreign I was. Once that barrier had been eradicated I found players were far more responsive.

I realised that there was no point in trying to make Pohnpei play like an English team because my players had different strengths and weaknesses to any side I had ever seen at home.

We built a system that harnessed the Pohnpeians' tremendous fitness levels while minimising the disadvantage of the short stature of the players (the average height in Micronesia being around five foot seven). Everything revolved around short passes. Unlike English players, my team were never afraid of losing the ball - if a defender lost the ball and we conceded it was a shame but there would be no recriminations. The result was a truly Pohnpeian football team.

As far as results on the pitch are concerned, there isn't much to choose between Capello and myself. Capello managed to mould a more ruthless England side capable of closing out results in qualifiers and indeed had a higher win percentage than any other England manager. My Pohnpei side were unbeaten in our hastily assembled games against foreigners on the island leading up to a tour of Guam where we delivered Pohnpei's first competitive victory - a 7-1 demolition of the Crushers - and a relatively narrow 3-0 defeat against Guam's Under-19 national team.

But even when winning matches, Capello failed to win the battle for hearts and minds. An English vocabulary of fewer than 100 words and an inability to acknowledge, let alone produce, humour, made Fabio seem aloof, uncaring and uncommitted. Compare him to the wisecracking, personable Harry Redknapp and it's a no-brainer which the public would go for to represent them. While football is a results-based business, it is also a soap opera of characters, heroes and villains and a fan's relationship with their team's manager is as emotional and fraught as a marriage.

A national football team is a crucial statement of national identity - it must represent its people. A foreign coach can succeed but he has to fully understand and appreciate the footballing culture he has inherited before making his own mark otherwise the relationship is fated to an acrimonious divorce.

 

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