Paul Watson is a British writer, football coach, and…a very nice guy. He is best known for serving as the manager of Pohnpei State football team. He described his ‘Micronesian experiences’ in a memoir ‘Up Pohnpei: Leading the ultimate football underdogs to glory’. Interested to know more about Paul’s adventure? Read on.
Pasifika Tales: I have to ask… Why Pohnpei?
Paul Watson: For the silliest of reasons, and quite an embarrassing one. As failed footballers, my flat-mate Matt and I decided we wouldn’t give up on our dream of playing international football and would try and find the lowest ranked international team in the world and get that nationality so we could play for them. Our searching took us to Pohnpei as they had never won a match of any kind. However, we quickly realized that we wouldn’t actually be able to naturalise as Micronesian passports are very hard to get and many Americans who have lived there decades and married Micronesians don’t have them. However, by coincidence the head of the Pohnpei FA had moved to London and when we met him he told us the team had stopped playing and what they really needed was coaching.
PT: Had you known anything about the Federated States of Micronesia before you went there?
PW: We did some reading of guidebooks, websites etc., but none of it really sunk in before I was there. This was 10 years ago and there wasn’t that much online about Micronesia.
PT: So you land in Pohnpei… What’s the biggest shock?
PW: The rain! It’s one thing to read that somewhere has one of the wettest climates in the world, but quite another to experience it! Every time it rained it felt like the world was ending, but the locals didn’t mind at all. It took quite a while to not just accept the rain but come to enjoy it, but I miss it now, especially when I’m in the cold, English rain.
PT: Let’s focus on football for a moment. Can we say that you introduced the game to Pohnpei? How big of a challenge was it?
PW: I can’t say I introduced football to Pohnpei. The game had been played there for many years on and off, in fact I was told it was introduced by a Ghanaian teacher called Thomas Tetteh back in the 1980s. The man who introduced us to Pohnpei, Charles Musana, had played and coached football on the island for 15 years. The issue was that football was just a small group of people playing informally – what I worked with the keenest local players to do was to create the first ever league and make things more structured.
PT: Is football still popular in the Federated States of Micronesia? Do you follow it?
PW: Absolutely! Despite a lack of any FIFA funding, the game continues to grow across Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap thanks to the hard work and dedication of individuals who want to give kids the chance to play the sport. I am still in touch with the guys in Pohnpei and was able to send out a coach called Chris Smith who did some amazing work last year in getting over 400 children playing regularly, introducing football into schools and training teachers so they feel comfortable running football sessions.
PT: You described your experiences in your book ‘Up Pohnpei’, which I think is fantastic. It is an entertaining and very uplifting memoir. Did you want to show readers that it’s always important to follow your dreams?
PW: Thank you! I guess the message is that you can follow you dream, however stupid it seems! I will always be glad I went to Pohnpei, even though it was a gamble and certainly left my financial situation difficult for a decade!
PT: What are some stories or anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book? Could you share one or two?
PW: A few things didn’t make it into the book but generally to protect the people involved, so still not sure I could tell the stories. One very safe anecdote that dropped out was the 5K Fun Run which I did alongside several of my players. I thought I was doing really well coming up to the final kilometer and then Roger Nakasone, our left-back and the fittest man I’ve ever met, sprinted past me giggling. He’d stopped to chat to some friends en route! That final part of the route everyone accelerated because there were so many dogs that started chasing you!
PT: What happened after you had left the islands?
PW: After we left, we left football in the capable hands of our captain and football leader Dilshan Senarathgoda, who visited Chuuk and Yap to run football workshops. The Federated States of Micronesia FA was set up, run by local people and ex-pats, and they put an application in to the East Asian Football Federation. Dilshan left the island to go to study in the US, but his dad, Vasantha, continues to run the game and teach it at the College of Micronesia and our former striker Bob Paul does amazing work training kids, while Steve Finnen and Albert Carlot help run the administrative side.
PT: Getting back to Pohnpei. What was the biggest life lesson you learnt there?
PW: I learned so much there, infinitely more than I ever taught anyone. Most of all I learned to take the time to understand different cultures and to respect that their values are different to yours. It may sound obvious, but it took a fair few glugs of sakau to truly embrace that!
PT: Do you have plans to come back to Micronesia one day?
PW: I’d love to return, but only to visit. The future of the sport depends on local people and they need FIFA to step in to give them the support they need. I’ll always do anything I can to assist with getting there and will continue to try and help other coaches get the chance to experience Micronesia – it truly is a unique and wonderful place.