Northern Marianas: The land that football forgot

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

As the usual collection of state-of-the-art venues were busy being filled across Europe and beyond this weekend, it’s remarkable to think that one tiny nation broke ground on their first ever football pitch.

With news feeds dripping up-to-the-minute information about players and leagues right across the planet, the Northern Mariana Islands is a nation that football forgot but they’re working hard to change that.

Part of the problem is that they’re not an independent nation with the 14 islands that comprise the Northern Marianas – located in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines and south of Japan – being part of the United States Commonwealth and that means from a footballing point of view that they’re stuck in an awkward limbo.

Whereas each of the other US territories in a similar situation (Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rica) are all full FIFA members the NMI have yet to achieve that status which means they receive no funding from the international body at the same time as they’re trying to nurture a blossoming football culture.

*All images courtesy of Scott McIntyre

With basketball and baseball dominating the sporting landscape it wasn’t until 2005 that the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association was even formed but since then the man at the helm, President Jerry Tan, has been working tirelessly towards improving the game and achieving full membership of both FIFA and the AFC.

Given the lack of funding it means that Tan is one of the most hands-on FA Presidents anywhere in the planet even as he has to juggle the role with fulltime employment elsewhere like every other member of the tiny FA staff but he’s still a regular sight across the islands driving from village to village to pick up local children and drive them in a van to training.

Unlike most other FA presidents he also still plays the game – turning out in the local second division where he lines up as a right midfielder at the age of 56 – and so you can understand his delight at having seen construction begin at the nation’s first ever pitch.

“For most other countries it would be just another pitch but for us it’s our first pitch and that’s something that everyone is excited by.

“Up until now we have been sharing pitches with baseball teams and that’s where the second division of our league is played with the first division played at a local middle school so when this pitch is complete in 2018 it has the potential to change football here.”

Although the NMI is not yet part of FIFA they are an associate member of the AFC which means they can participate in regional and continental tournaments and even though the odds are stacked against them and the costs crippling, Tan has been insistent that they send teams to every available competition and that will include a journey to Australia next month for the AFC U19 qualifiers.

With a total population of barely 50,000, the Northern Mariana Islands are not only one of the most ambitious nations, but also one of the smallest competing on the continental stage. Tan hopes that people look beyond the results on the pitch – which included some heavy defeats at the recent AFC U15 qualification event – and see the hard work that they are putting in to developing football.

“The NMI FA was only established 12 years ago and we have had a very difficult beginning in terms of being a new sport on the islands but I would say that we’ve made a lot of progress in that time.

“We have teams from U6s all the way to men’s and women’s at every age group and we play at school level and in terms of players I think now we have the largest group of any other sport.

“The reality though internationally is that every time we go out to face our opponent they would have been 40, 60 or 100 years old in terms of the association and how long the sport has been played so I think it’s only fair that people realise we are still in the very early stage of our development.

“Even in the recent AFC U15 tournament we knew that every match is a tough one but the team fought until the very last game and we actually scored one goal: that may not mean a lot for other teams but you understand football when you play against a strong team that scoring one goal is not easy.

“We continue to participate knowing it’s going to be a tough competition and a tough game with every opponent but we continue to play. Just give us time and I’m sure that if you evaluate how we play the game objectively then you’ll agree we are making progress every year.”

The key for the future development of the sport is access to funding and guidance that would come with full membership of both FIFA and the AFC and on that front there is positive news with the United States Soccer Federation offering its full support for their bid and documents having being presented to FIFA recently that hopefully will see that status granted, as Tan explained to FOX Sports Asia.

“I feel very confident that we will become a full member of both FIFA and the AFC one day – the main criteria for membership, as I understand is how active you are in terms of participation which I’m proud to share that we’ve been very, very active in spite of very limited resources.

“We join every single competition that is available at EAFF and AFC level; we send between 6-8 teams out for competition and the last couple of years we’ve also sent them out for training camps and we also participate in all the workshops and conferences, coaching clinics, referee courses and administrative conferences and programs that’s made available by the AFC so we’re doing something almost every month and are one of the most active member associations and that’s important for us to continue to learn and to grow the sport.”

In fact the amount of work that this tiny association does is far greater than many much larger ones who spend the bulk of their time on politics rather than development of the game.

If FIFA and the AFC truly care about growing the game in every corner of the globe then they’d do well to recognise the work that this football loving, player ferrying, president does – where something as simple as a goal and a pitch can bring great joy to a growing football community.