Soccer coach urges local enthusiasts to keep soccer momentum going

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By Bill Jaynes
The Kaselehlie Press
July 6, 2017
Pohnpei—Chris Smith of Nottingham has left the building, or more appropriately, Chris Smith has finished his time in Pohnpei after 90 days spent volunteering to work on what he called a “simple, but big idea”. He was here to help to further the development of soccer in Pohnpei. He is guardedly pleased with the progress but urges local enthusiasts to keep the momentum going.
“We’ve got this great youth league going on. If that stops, I want questions to be asked. I want collective responsibility for the things that I believe are good that are happening and that other people believe are good as well,” he said. “I want someone to keep pushing to keep things going.”
“You can’t, sort of, give up on the kids. That’s where the new talent is coming from and their parents are where the volunteers will come from,” he said.
Quite a lot happened with football (soccer) development while Smith was in Pohnpei, but he is quick to say that it’s not that locals couldn’t have done it. There are several people in Pohnpei who are very interested in promoting the sport but they don’t have a lot of concentrated time. The advantage that Smith had was that he was able to pursue the goal on a full time voluntary basis even if just for a short term. “One thing I’m really keen to happen and I keep going on about is ‘Do not leave it too long before you do this again’,” he exclaimed. “We have a format. We have kids. If we leave it, even if we leave it a couple of months, the kids will disappear. We have an audience now. I’m saying that we should take two weeks off at the most.”

“Whether we have the time to do that or the volunteers to do that, that’s another thing,” he lamented. “There are a lot of committed people and we want to work out how to coordinate them so they don’t go off in separate directions.”
Paul Watson, who at 25 years of age was touted as the youngest national football coach when he came to Pohnpei in 2009 to try to develop the sport for a salary of zero dollars and zero cents has not lost his interest in Pohnpei football. He recruited Smith to spend his own money and time to come to Pohnpei for no salary to also try to further develop the game. soccer 02
Before Watson came in 2009, the Pohnpei team had already been labeled as the world’s worst, having never won a match. That moniker stuck even harder when at the Pacific Games in 2015, the FSM team gave up 114 goals in three games against Tahiti, Fiji, and Vanuatu. The FSM team didn’t score a single goal during those three matches.
Smith wasn’t necessarily in Pohnpei to build a championship team, he was here to promote the sport for the future. “I mean, it’s anyway you can do it,” he said. “Whether it’s to find the best guys in the State to compete in the Micro Games next year, or whether it’s getting more people participating in the sport,” he said.
He said that for youth development he tried to follow the FIFA guidelines which start with five a side teams for the younger players and moves to seven, nine and finally eleven a side on a full 100 yards by 65 yards soccer pitch as the athletes get older.
Though he arrived four weeks before the end of the school term he was still ultimately able to visit 14 schools all around the island. He said that the schools all had been given soccer balls by the Governor donated by the Guam FIFA chapter but principals were telling him that they wanted the kids to learn soccer but they didn’t know anything about it.
“So I visited the schools and we just had a ‘kick-about’. It wasn’t about coaching or teaching them skills. It was just, ‘this is soccer’ and here are some games you can play right here on the playground,” he said. “It was basically what we call ‘street games’.”
He also showed them how they could set up simple games using just about anything they have around for goal post markers in just about any size of space. It wasn’t full pitch, 11 on a side, organized, complex soccer but it helped to introduce the students to the sport, and it was fun. soccer 03
The average number of children at the elementary schools was 40 but with a pretty high standard deviation. One school had 90 children and there were just a few soccer balls. Smith estimates that with his school visits alone he introduced the sport of soccer to between one and one and a half percent of the population of the island.
“I believe more now than I did before I came, that Pohnpei needs in school competitions,” he said. “A lot of the kids told me that the reason they drop out of soccer is because they can compete in other sports like basketball or volleyball, but there’s really no soccer competition to speak of yet.”
He said that so many kids were interested in playing that he really wanted to organize an end of the school year tournament but unfortunately ended up facing problems with his visa. He was told that visa extensions are usually for extenuating circumstance but that it appeared that he had always planned on getting the maximum number of extensions since his onward plane ticket was for 90 days after his arrival. They also told him that it appeared that he had been working which was not allowed under the type of visa under which he entered. He was close to being told to leave the country when Governor Peterson wrote a letter of support that seemed to end it. He said that he had fewer problems when he extended on the following month but it still wasn’t trouble free.
By the time he was able to get that problem sorted out there were only three or four days left in the school term. He was determined still to organize a scaled down tournament. He set up four soccer pitches at the PICS field and invited those schools who could come to participate. Because of the late notice and distance, it ended up being mostly those schools that are in Kolonia or close by. Despite the short notice, over 50 children turned up for the hastily arranged tournament. They formed 8 teams of 4 plus alternates for each team. soccer 05
“I was amazed that you could pull that together in just three or four days so that kids could play,” he exclaimed.
He told the kids that if they turned up at the same place and the same time every week he would help them to learn some soccer skills. And they did turn up after school. It was completely ad hoc but for the next three weeks an average of 25 kids showed up even when it was pouring down rain.
Before they were done, they combined together with the children participating in the Spanish Wall Summer Camp soccer program run on a volunteer basis by Bob Paul, one of the original Pohnpei State players. Apparently Paul has been running the summer camp for several years now.
The two groups came together and they put together four seven a side teams and ran another tournament on a two thirds sized field. The finals for that tournament were on the day before Smith left Pohnpei.
“One of my favorite things I’ve done here is to introduce different game formats, like Futsal,” he said. Futsal is a high intensity form of soccer played indoors in a much smaller space. Because it was the rainy season when he arrived, he needed a way to continue his work. The College of Micronesia FSM Pohnpei Campus allowed use of their gym in Daini.
Alternate forms of the game, like Futsal, addressed several issues that affect development of soccer in Pohnpei. Some of those factors are the number of available players, the weather, pitch quality, the technical ability and the speed of the game. “Futsal was like this solution to all of them. It was a consistent pitch. You have to be more active on defense and tackles. You can’t just stand and wait for the ball. We actually got more people for that than we did at PICS field,” he said.
Facilities are hard to come by for a sport like Futsal but Smith said that Jose Joab, the President of the Sports Council has been very supportive. “I was told that PICS gym has a full schedule of basketball and volleyball but Jose said, ‘well, if basketball has two days and volleyball has two days, surely we could give at least one day to soccer.’ So he’s supporting us getting use of that gym,” Smith said.
“I support the development of a Futsal league. It’s easier to get teams, more teams; shorter, quicker games but, I’ve run out of time, basically.”
Smith said that there is so much to do and to see in Pohnpei, “Nan Madol was mind blowing!” But he was heavily invested in what he was here to do and didn’t get to see all of the things that he wanted to see. He is okay with that. “If I had seen everything I wanted to see and if everything had been done I wouldn’t need to come back. But I hope, provisionally to come back next year to see how everything is going and when the Pohnpei team is ramping up for the Micro Games.”
Though he did work with the athletes that may become part of the team to represent Pohnpei at the Micro Games, it was not his highest priority. The team members have not yet been finally selected. He said that there are a lot of varying motivations for the adult players. Some just come out for a “bit of kick about…it’s hard to be motivated to seriously train when the games are over a year away and there aren’t any real matches between now and then.”
Still he hopes that training of the team will begin in earnest soon.