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Wednesday, September 5, 2012


From time to time, an eminent historian or geographer will appear on our television screens to discuss the Amazon region of Brazil and its position as being one of the world's "last unmapped areas." In football terms, there are few such places left; Pat's Football Blog has, in the past, featured articles on football in some unexpected places, such as Tristan da Cunha, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and Saint Helena.

There are, of course, many other locations less well-known to the average football fan, but if there are no more "unmapped areas" in world football, there are still some places which constitute the beautiful game's very own "twilight zone," where football has yet to gain a foothold or has been and gone, seemingly never to return, and many of these - Nauru, Tokelau and Wallis and Futuna, among others - are to be found among the scattered island nations of the Pacific Ocean.

News and results from such places bring football statisticians the world over to a collective state of frenzy bordering on the mega-orgasmic, and discussions on anti-social media and forums abound over statistical and historical happenings from places both isolated and obscure.

Maybe the nation best-placed to earn the dubious distinction of being "football's twilight zone" - and one which fascinates football statisticians no end, at the moment, at any rate - is the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a former Pacific Trust Territory governed by the United States until it gained full independence in 1986. The islands, situated to the south-east of the Philippines, Guam and Palau, cover an immense surface area of the Pacific Ocean, but have a land-mass area of some 70 square miles and, according to a 2009 UN esimate, a population of around 68000 people.

Very few sovereign nations are not members of FIFA; among these are Nauru, Kiribati, Monaco, Vatican City, Tuvalu (although this may well change in the near future), the Federated States of Micronesia (whose FA is in the process of submitting a bid to join FIFA) and the Marshall Islands. The Marshalls are the only one out of these countries never to have had a national football association, and have also never had a national football team.

However, if it were up to a young man called Connor Pezzaioli, the Marshall Islands would have one tomorrow. Pezzaioli, who hails from Staffordshire in the UK, has been spearheading a thus far little-known campaign on Facebook entitled Give the Marshall Islands a league and National Team, and, as part of the campaign, also recently produced a short but very interesting document entitled Proposals on Football in the Marshall Islands.

The islands are spread over a vast area of the Pacific Ocean, so a truly national league would be nigh on impossible to organise. Pezzaioli's document proposes the setting-up of a football league on the atoll of Majuro, where the nation's capital is based. The league would comprise of 6 teams, representing various villages on Majuro, which has a population of 30000. The member teams of the Majuro Amateur Soccer League would be: Ajeltake, Delap, Djarrit, Laura, Rairok and Uliga, and games would take place at the Majuro Sports Stadium.

The atoll of Kwajalein would also have a football league of its own, involving at least two teams from Kwajalein island and the nearby island of Ebeye. There is at least one football pitch on Kwajalein, which houses the US Army's Reagan Test Site and is home to some 2000 people.

Other proposals include women's leagues on Majuro and Kwajalein, youth leagues on both of these islands and also on Ebeye, and the appointment or match officials, transfer regulations and the setting-up of a Marshall Islands FA are also covered in the document.

Your correspondent has attempted to contact various sporting, civil and governmental bodies in the Marshall Islands during recent months to ascertain the state of football in the Marshalls, but responses have not exactly been forthcoming. However, a reply was very recently received from Amy Sasser, representing the Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee, who said: "As far as the Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee is aware and concerned, there is no organized football (soccer) in the Marshall Islands at any level."

Ms. Sasser mentioned that "there is no athletics stadium in the Marshall Islands." She also stated that football is not very popular in the islands, and went on to say that "the most popular team sports are basketball and volleyball."

Harking back to Connor Pezzaioli's document for a moment, there does not seem to be a sports stadium as such on Majuro Atoll, but, if satellite images are to believed, there does appear to be a running-track of sorts in Laura at the western edge of Majuro, although whether it is large enough to accommodate a football pitch seems doubtful - if said "structure" is actually a running-track. Having said that, there seems to be ample space in the vicinity to enlarge the "track" to a proper size, and also create enough space within for a football pitch.

In "downtown" Majuro (which is spread over several islands at the eastern side of Majuro Atoll), there is an indoor stadium, the ECC (Educational Cultural Center), used principally for basketball and volleyball, which would surely be large enough to host five-a-side/Futsal matches. Majuro's population is squeezed together on a landmass with a surface area covering less than 4 square miles, though the area around Laura is comparatively sparsely populated.

Ms. Sasser was also asked about football on Kwajalein, and she had this to say: "It has been suggested that there may have at one time been a soccer program on Kwajalein Atoll (the only atoll that might have sufficient land mass to accommodate a soccer field), but despite numerous attempts, we have been unable to confirm this or obtain any contact information. Soccer is not played anywhere else in the Marshall Islands due to lack of playing space and equipment."

Kwajalein does have at least one football pitch, Brandon Field, which is in the grounds of Kwajalein High School, and it appears to be used - or appears to have been used - for local football league competition in which the Spartans club, affilliated to the high school, has regularly taken part (in both men's and women's competition).

The following quote, taken from the book Diseases of Globalisation: Socioeconomic Transitions and Health, written by Christine McMurray and Roy Hugh Smith, and published back in 2001, seems to back up Ms. Sasser's assertion: "To the casual observer there appear [sic] to be few sources of entertainment, especially for young people. Outdoors, as in most countries, children play around the houses and in the street. School-age children and adolescents play volleyball and basketball wherever they can find a space, but in Majuro and Ebeye there are few spaces large enough to support games such as baseball, soccer or even an athletics track, and generally provision is not made for such sports." Things don't seem to changed much.

Judging by satellite images of the islands, Amy Sasser certainly has a point regarding the lack of playing space in the islands, but more on that anon. Back to footballing matters Kwajalein now, and the island certainly does have a competitive footballing history all of its own.

According to the RSSSF's entry on the Marshall Islands on the football statistics organisation's website, a football competition first took place on Kwajalein in 1967, and was won by a team called Shamrock Rovers. Available statistical information can be obtained via the link at the end of this article.

It has been reported in dispatches that teams from Ebeye have travelled the short distance by boat to Kwajalein to participate in their league competition; referring to Connor Pezzaioli's suggestion that women's leagues be set up in both Ebeye and Kwajalein, both men's and women's teams have, at times, represented Ebeye in Kwaj competitions for both sexes down the years. Two such teams, both apparently linked to schools on Ebeye, are Queen of Peace and Calvary.

On Ebeye itself, conditions on the ground couldn't be more different than on Kwajalein. Ebeye has a dark recent history. It also has a population of between 11000-13000 people, squeezed on to a tiny speck of land no more than 80 acres in size, earning it the unfortunate title of "the slum of the Pacific." Around 1000 of Ebeye's inhabitants work on Kwajalein. Very few Marshallese now live on Kwajalein; those who do are married to US nationals.

Most of the Ebeye's population are not native Ebeyans; many of them originally re-settled from Kwajalein Island, which was used as a supply base for nuclear tests which were carried out at Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll in the years after World War II (until 1958), and other islands within Kwajalein atoll. A large number of those now residing on Ebeye came from Rongelap Atoll (near Bikini Atoll) and have suffered from the effects of radiation sickness.

In recent years, many inhabitants of other, outlying, locations within the Marshall Islands have also migrated to Ebeye in the hope of finding work at the US base on Kwajalein. As a result, the island's population has been suffering from severe overcrowding, poor sanitation facilities, power-cuts and water shortages, as well as occasional outbreaks of dengue fever, tuberculosis and even cholera.

The plight of Ebeye's residents was detailed in a television documentary called Collateral Damage, part of the Unnatural Causes series which was aired on America's Public Broadcasting Service in 2009.

There are a couple of small basketball courts on Ebeye but, as alluded to in McMurray and Smith's report from 2001, room for virtually no other form of sporting recreation, volleyball and swimming excepted. Apart from those who travel to work at the Reagan Test Site, access to Kwajalein is very restricted for citizens of the Marshall Islands, including those who want to play football at Brandon Field. Although physical recreation is good for the body and for the soul, until the various problems haunting Ebeye Island and its inhabitants are resolved, football will have to take a back seat.

As for the rest of the islands and atolls which constitute the Republic of the Marshall Islands, there are only a few with a permanent population of more than 1000 people, and the country as a whole is scattered over a wide area. Including its landmass, internal territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, the territory of the Marshall Islands covers an area of almost 2 million square kilometres.

In the Marshall Islands, a group of islands with a small population, a tiny, scattered, land area and a rather low GDP per capita of just over US$3000 in 2010 (at the current rate of US$), getting around is expensive and time-consuming. An inter-island league is definitely not a viable option, although if the Marshall Islands authorities can utilise the limited space they have on Majuro and build a sports complex encompassing a full-size athletics track, it will benefit a great many sports, not just football. Such a complex would not necessarily have to cover a great deal of land, and would compliment the ECC, the roof of which partially collapsed last year (it is unclear as to whether it has now been repaired).

Although Connor Pezzaioli's document does not address the above issues, it does represent a first step in, at the very least, a proper discussion over the issue of properly organising football in the Marshall Islands, and also sets out, for the most part, a potentially viable structure for football in the country; money, space and interested locals allowing, of course.

The Marshall Islands do not seem to be on FIFA's radar, but it could be somewhere where the NF-Board (the non-FIFA global football federation), in conjunction with the Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee, might be interested in assisting with the creation of a local footballing community. Whoever eventually decides to help get the ball rolling (as it were), the discussions about football in that particular region of the Pacific Ocean are far from over. In contrast, perhaps they are only now getting started.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Much of the information contained in the above article came from sources such as Connor Pezzaioli's Proposals on Football in the Marshall Islands, and also (to a small extent) from Wikipedia.

Link to the transcript for Collateral Damage, episode 6 of the Unnatural Causes series:

Link to page 134 of Diseases of Globalisation: Socioeconomic Tranisitions and Health (2001), Christine McMurray and Roy Hugh Smith:

The following link to the RSSSF website is the starting-point to their records of football in the Marshall Islands and on Kwajalein:

Many and sincere thanks to Connor Pezzaioli for his allowing the dissection of his fine document; may his efforts bear some fruit! Also, grateful thanks and appreciation are due to Amy Sasser from the Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee for her input. To find out more about Pezzaioli's campaign, please go to the Give the Marshall Islands a league and National Team page on Facebook.

Kindly note that the above article has been slightly edited as a result of copyright concerns regarding information on football on Kwajalein. Apologies to one and all for the withdrawal of the original article, but, as and when the copyright situation is sorted out, the full article will be published, hopefully in the not too distant future. (A lesson to plagiarists everywhere!)