The small Pacific island of Guam, home to a smattering over 160,000 people, were once unfortunate holders of the worst defeat in international football history. In the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup, Guam succumbed to a Karim Bagheri inspired Iran contriving to lose 19-0 in their opening group match; six of those coming courtesy of Bagheri’s boots.
That was just for starters too. Their next match didn’t go much better, losing ‘only’ 16-0 to Tajikistan. At the time Guam hadn’t yet stopped so low as to be ranked the worst in the world, but it was coming. The one positive was that their hold on the biggest defeat record wasn’t to last long. Australia had twice beat lesser teams into submission just a few months after Guam’s Iranian shellacking. First they beat Tonga 22-0 before going even better a few days later. In something of a schooling in the ways of real ranking ignominy, a genuine worst in the world team, American Samoa, stole the record in a 31-0 defeat to the rampant Socceroos.
Guam had thankfully passed on that sliver of shame, but their descent to the foot of the rankings continued inexorably and inevitably. It wasn’t a new experience for the islanders, having had various stints at the bottom in the mid-1990s, but a couple of years after their World Cup nightmare they had plunged the depths once more. Now a fully-fledged member of the worst in the world club, Guam set about confirming this status in a particularly diligent manner. In spite of their previous stints propping up the rankings, the 2005 East Asian Championship actually marked the first time that Guam played a fixture as the worst in the world. It didn’t go well.
Opening with a 9-0 loss to Chinese Taipei, things got worse two days later in a 15-0 thumping by Hong Kong before the group ended in a 21-0 loss to North Korea. There had been some small comfort in a 4-1 loss to Mongolia; a result that would usually be classed as a heavy loss, but these things are relative. To Guam it must have felt like the tightest of margins.
The 2007 East Asian Championships continued in a similar vein, as did the following year’s AFC Challenge Cup. Hopes were not high ahead the 2009 East Asian Championships first round group being hosted in a plush resort high in the hills of central Guam.
Lining up for Guam that day in April 2009 in their opening match against Mongolia was a very youthful squad made up of a smattering of semi-professional players plus one or two students. Several teenagers, including a confident looking nineteen-year-old striker, Christopher Mendiola, were part of the team. Such was the paucity of the playing pool available to Guam – around six hundred registered players – that this was already Mendiola’s third season playing for his national team, making him one of the more seasoned regulars despite his lack of years.
Slightly older, but with a similar level of experience was the man who would look to provide Mendiola’s supply line in attack, the Sheringham to Mendiola’s Shearer, Jason Cunliffe. Towering over them all was the goalkeeper, Brett Maluwelmeng, a chunky imposing giant of a man making only his third appearance for the national team. He was one of a handful of US-born players in the squad, who in addition to a few islanders based in America and playing in American lower leagues or colleges, had returned to Guam to add a little football-savvy to go with the local enthusiasm. Their Japanese coach, Norio Tsukitate, was sanguine ahead of the challenge: ‘Even if we can’t build on our ability we want to be a team that makes up for it with feeling.’
Their opponents that day, from the rather larger nation of Mongolia had endured something of a tough preparation. In a country where the snow and ice persist for a prolonged winter, they had been unable to train outdoors ahead of travelling to the significantly warmer climes of Guam. The hosts began very much on the front foot, buoyed on by their boisterous, if numerically limited, following. As early as the ninth minute of play, Christopher Mendiola combined with Jason Cunliffe with a neat, crisp one-two before firing into the net from just inside the penalty area. If six hundred fans can be said to cause bedlam, then that is what happened as the happy hundreds watching celebrated an infrequently experienced lead. They had been there before however. Two years before, in losing 5-2 to Mongolia, Guam had even led 2-0 before succumbing to five Mongolian strikes. This time, the determination was to achieve a different outcome for a change.
But Mongolia were not a higher ranked team for no reason, and they increasingly piled on the pressure. One effort smacked off the crossbar and the increased pressure was creating chance after chance. This was a level of intensity that Guam had never before been able to contain.
Under such attrition, Guam had repeatedly floundered in the past. All prior attempts to stem a relentless opposing tide had resulted in defences breached and goalkeeper beaten, time and time again. But that would not be the case on this day. By hook or by crook, the keeper turned away everything that the Mongolians threw at him. The excitable home crowd counted down the final seconds in a crescendo of ever-increasing volume, before the grandest cheer of them all as the Korean referee signalled an end to the match. Mongolia’s knack for regularly beating their Guamanian opponents in this tournament had at last been overcome. The whistle was met with a mixture of joy and relief by those involved; thirteen years of hurt since joining FIFA was finally, gloriously, conclusively over.
‘We finally got a win,’ was the rather neat summation of Guam’s coach Tsukitate, himself having endured five years at the helm, searching, striving, straining for that elusive first official victory. ‘We had something to prove today, and I think we did,’ he added with pride. Those thirteen years since achieving FIFA recognition had brought nothing but defeat against other FIFA nations. And what is more, since the founding of Guam’s Football Association in 1975, it was their first victory against a FIFA-affiliated nation. A thirty-four year quest was at an end. For it all to end so heroically against the strongest-rated team in this particular tournament was the stuff of dreams.
‘The result is due to all the hard work everyone has continuously been putting in,’ continued Tsukitate. ‘It’s a big victory for us, especially considering that situation was something new for us. The team has grown a lot to be able to win by a goal.’
Guam followed this historic win by beating their non-FIFA affiliated near neighbours from Northern Mariana 2-1 before facing a tournament decider against Macau. With Mongolia having reasserted their authority by winning both of their remaining games, Guam only required a draw to ensure top spot in the group and with it an unprecedented place in the next round of the East Asian Championship. Trailing 2-1 as the game neared its conclusion, as the match entered stoppage time, a surge forward from Guam defender Scott Gurrero, playing as an emergency forward in the latter stages as desperation increased, saw him slip the ball through to Jason Cunliffe. He coolly slotted the ball past the onrushing Macau goalkeeper for a dramatic and decisive equaliser.
A previously unthinkable draw left Guam in uncharted territory. In the space of a few short days, they’d racked up their first official win and then, after the victory over their unranked neighbours, followed it up with their first official draw to top the group and progress to the next round for the first time.
‘We can only go up from here,’ was Cunliffe’s assessment. Guam’s ranking, after this successful week in the sun, would now be headed that way.
Since that dramatic week, Guam have gone from strength to strength and have never sunk so low again. In fact now, under the guidance of English coach Gary White, they are one of Asian football’s most impressive success stories, gaining wins over the likes of India and Turkmenistan recently. The days of being the worst in the world are now long gone.