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Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Out of the world's myriad of independent countries, only a few are not part of FIFA, and out of those, only three or four at most do not have an international football team of some description. Even fewer have no organised football at all. According to Matt, an acquaintance of your correspondent, the tiny Pacific nation of Palau is one such place. He called in to the homestead a few weeks ago whilst on the way to somewhere else, and we fell into conversation, during which he mentioned that he had just come back from a ten-day holiday in Palau, which he enjoyed immensely, and had spent no small amount of time diving among the tiny Pacific nation's coral-reefs.

When asked about the football scene in Palau, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said that the Palauans didn't play football, or, at least, he had heard nothing about the game being played locally. That came as no big surprise, to be fair, as Matt is no fan of what that icon of British broadcasting, Stuart Hall, calls "the beautiful game." However, the game is indeed played in Palau, but not entirely as per the FIFA rule-book. Before we go on to that, however, time for a quick geography lesson (not least for yours truly).

The Republic of Palau (Belau in the Palauan language), situated some 500 miles due east of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and 2000 miles south of Japan, was the final Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands to achieve independence when it became a sovereign state in 1994. It, together with the Northern Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands and what are now the Federated States of Micronesia, was a United Nations trusteeship under American supervision from 1947 until independence.

Palau, an archipelago spread over thousands of square miles of the Pacific Ocean, consists of more than 250 islands covering a total land area of less than 180 square miles with a population of just under 21000 people, more than half of whom live on Koror Island.

Koror is also home to the Palau Football Association, which was formed in May 2002, and the PFA's first ten years in existence have not been without their fair share of problems; a local league was initiated in 2004, but it was discontinued in 2007. Charles Reklai Mitchell, a Palauan-American who grew up in the Californian city of San Diego and played college football for California State Northridge between 2000 and 2003, moved to Palau in 2007 and began working with the PFA early in 2008. He is now the association's president, and has overseen the return of an organised league in the archipelago, which is still only based on Koror and the neighbouring island of Malakal.

When Mitchell arrived in the islands, he found the PFA, and football in Palau in general, in a state of neglect. Only now, four years on, has he and a small band of fellow volunteers, been able to sufficiently resurrect organised football in the tiny republic to the extent that Koror's league has been revived and an inter-island youth tournament created.

He said: "It almost feels like we are starting from scratch..Football in Palau was around [when he arrived in 2008], but [there was] no-one to organize it properly." The league stopped after the 2006-07 due what Mitchell called "a lack of personnel."

"In Palau," Mitchell continued, "it is very difficult to find volunteers to organize a league. There is a handful of us wearing 3 hats, so to say. That league [2006-07] was mainly [staffed] with foreigners, which is not a bad thing, but my mentality was to develop the youth for the future in order to have higher quality local players. The league went on for years and we haven't gotten anywhere [near] international play. It's better to have strong roots or the whole thing will collapse. Without consistent development, gaps begin to form and weaken the influence of football within the community."

This season, there are five teams competing in the PFA Spring League, which only lasts a matter of weeks. It began on 11/3/12, and this season's participants are Team Bangladesh - who won the last national league championship, played in 2007, and who are also the only team from that era to take part in this year's competition; they could justifiably be called the current league champions - Belau Kanu Club, Biib Strykers, Kramers FC, and, last but not least, Taj.

Judging by their names, some of the teams who participated in previous incarnations (and the current version) of the PFA League seem to have comprised at least partly of migrant workers: Mount Everest Nepal, Taj and Team Bangladesh to name but three; a throwback to Mitchell's earlier comments. The teams competing this season have all been sponsored by local businesses; Taj, for example, is the name of a local restaurant, while Kramers FC is sponsored by a café based on Malakal.

What sets adult football in Palau apart from that played in most of the rest of the world is that teams are 9-a-side, and comprise of both men and women. The country, or Koror, at any rate, has just 57 registered players: 53 men and 4 women. Each team plays each other once, with matches lasting 60 minutes instead of the regulation 90, and the top four teams then move on to the classic semi-final and final format.

Team Bangladesh finished top of the 5-team "regular" season this time round, winning all of their games in the process. They were drawn against Biib Strykers in the semi-finals, with second-placed Taj taking on Kramers FC in the other semi. (Belau Kanu Club finished bottom of the group and pointless.) Team Bangladesh disposed of the Strykers in some style, winning by 6 goals to 1, thanks in part to a Malakai Bitu hat-trick, is second of the campaign.

In the other semi, which proved to be even more of a high-scoring affair, Taj defeated Kramers FC 8:4 with Futa and Toni Ililau scoring hat-tricks for Taj; Futa registered his treble in the first 10 minutes, and that after Kramers FC had opened the scoring through Tabet Kano in the first minute. The result of the final between Taj and Team Bangladesh, played on 22/4/12 was a 2:1 win for the "current" league champions, though the match details were not to hand at the time of writing.

That takes care of the present, but what of the future of the game in Palau? Mitchell reckons that the future of the game in the islands definitely belongs to today's youth. There is a national sports tournament, the Belau Games, which takes place every two years, and football was included in the set-up for the first time in 2011. The tiny republic is divided into 16 states, with 10 of them, including Melekeok, which houses the nation's capital, Ngerulmud, situated on the largest island in the republic, Babeldaob. Four states (Airai, Koror, Ngardmau and the eventual winners, Ngeremlengui) sent representative football teams, though there were problems even here, according to the PFA president.

"The Belau Games in 2011 for all sports were open to adults. [Having said that], there are not enough Palauan adults who play football," he said. "I put an age limit of 14 and under to cater to the youth build-up for years to come. In 2013, the soccer event will have no age limits since most of the kids in the program now will be around 16 years of age. In June of this year, the youth games will be conducted, which [will feature teams of age] 18 & under. We will hold two competitions with the age groups being 14-18 and 10-13 years of age."

The Palau Football Association also organise after-school "camps" for local children of primary-school age at the PCC Track & Field (also referred to as the Palau National Track & Field), the country's national stadium, and the PFA estimated that more than 100 schoolchildren have already taken part so far this year.

Meanwhile, the PFA are also looking to expand senior football further, at least on Koror. The 5 clubs taking part in the association's Spring League are, as mentioned earlier, all sponsored by private businesses, and the PFA are looking for locals to come together and organise clubs which are not financed by private companies. Biib Strykers are also planning to develop the nation's first proper youth team later this year. According to Mitchell, the format of the PFA's Autumn League - or, failing that, future editions of PFA league championships - may well change as the number of clubs increases.

"We will be conducting another adult league in the fall which will be longer. Depending on the number of registered teams, every team will play each other twice before moving on. There is a possibility in the play-offs we might adopt the UEFA ruling on "legs". That will something to really consider. We hope to begin the fall (autumn) season in October."

Mitchell also mentioned that the PFA are looking further ahead, and further afield. "In 2014 the Micronesian Games are held in Pohnpei [in the Federated States of Micronesia] and I hope they offer football as an event. It will give a chance to have all islanders watch and play football."

Not only that, but the PFA joining a continental confederation should not be ruled out, and, according to the PFA president, this may happen sooner rather than later, though he remains realistic.

"In order to apply for FIFA, I believe we need to join an international federation first. We have been exchanging emails with the Guam Football Association. GFA president Richard Lai recently said he will mention our interest in joining the EAFF[East Asian Football Federation], AFC at a meeting in Shanghai.

"There are pros and cons with everything, but the EAFF is a better choice. The chance to conduct friendlies with various nations would be logistically easier than trying to send a team to Papua New Guinea, Samoa, etc. The competition is strong in the AFC and [participation in major tournaments is unrealistic at this time] because we are just getting our footing and will be thrown into the deep end. At this point we will go with whatever federation that is willing to accept our application, but leaning towards EAFF."

Membership of the EAFF might well be a better option for the PFA; travelling costs would certainly add up to a lot less than were they to join the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation). For instance, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are, in comparison to Samoa, a hop, skip and jump away from Palau. The Philippines, too, are a lot closer than most of the OFC member nations.

And, when your budget is as limited as that of the Palau Football Association, every penny counts; according to the PFA website, the association's annual income (garnered mostly thanks to the kindness of others) averages out at around just US$800 per annum, while annual expenditure is put at some US$500. Of course, with such a tiny population, an equally small budget, not to mention an apathy for the game among large sections of the country's adult population - American team sports such as baseball and basketball are still the most popular in the archipelago - expansion is difficult, Mitchell added.

"I would say our biggest needs are coaching and refereeing qualification courses along with the strengthening of our adminstration. It's very hard to do [any of this] without a budget. It would be nice to have a certified instructor on island to conduct courses for all interested volunteers. Eventually the PFA will need to provide coaches and referees that hold the credentials that will allow them to perform their duties at an international level."

He concluded by saying: "I think football in Palau is another great team sport to create productive people for the community. I don't expect Palau to win a World Cup, but there is potential for kids to possibly get scholarships for school. There is a lot of natural talent, its just a matter of constantly working with them. The biggest problem here is our population. It is really low and kids here do not concentrate on one sport. It is hard to keep a kid interested in a sport if there is no incentive such as travelling to other islands for youth tourneys."

Palau, then, although hampered as it is by having a small population, many of whom are apathetic towards football, and the distances between it and even its closest neighbours, has a football association staffed by volunteers who, although inexperienced, are determined to see it grow and improve. The PFA may well be taking baby steps at the moment and finding their feet - in Charles Mitchell's own words: "This is the first time I have organized a league and with that I have learned what to improve on" - but every tiny step forward is a sign of progress.

Membership of FIFA, or even the EAFF, may well be a long way off, but it is heartening to see Palau's local governing football body look at things in a sensible manner. In fact, the world's biggest clubs and federations could learn a few lessons from what the Palau Football Association are doing, and how they are doing it with about as much money as what would keep Cristiano Ronaldo in football boots for a couple of months. It augurs well for the future of football in the small republic..and going to a game at the PCC Track & Field might give Matt something else to do with his Sunday afternoon the next time he's in the area.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to Charles Mitchell for his kindness, patience, co-operation and permission to glean information from the Palau Football Association website:

Other information was taken from the RSSSF website:

HELP BILLY WALK APPEAL: The Help Billy Appeal, ongoing since last year, aims to raise enough money to enable a young 3-year-old boy, Billy Douglas, who comes from a village just outside Belfast and who suffers from spastic diaplegia, to undergo an urgent and potentially life-changing operation. Should you wish to know more, Billy's plight has been highlighted in a recent entry here on Pat's Football Blog:

Or, of course, for those who might want to bypass the article and go straight to goal, the appeal's website address is:

If you can donate, please do so. If not, kindly post either link on your Facebook page if you have one and share, or tweet. Many thanks.

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