At the age of 24, Englishman Gary John White reached out and faxed each of FIFA’s 207 associations in the world in search for a job. he was assigned to helm of the British Virgin Islands national team, becoming one of the youngest national coaches in history.
Today, at 41, a more experienced Coach White is working miracles with the national team he helped build in Guam – a team he calls the ‘Matao’. Named after a chief of the old Chamorro society who are the indigenous Guamanians, White has given the team an identity that gave their fans something to relate to and ultimately, a brand that the people champion.
“Before the games, we started doing the Inifresi,” said White. “It’s an old hymn. Everyone in Guam knows it, as it’s sung in school. Before the game, we stood in the centre circle and sang it. Now they don’t talk about the national team in Guam; they talk about the Matao.”
Ranked 156th by FIFA, Guam, with a population of just 162,000, is still in the running of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Being a small country, the team is faced with the challenge of selecting international-caliber players from a smaller pool compared to the other countries. In order to address this, White started a global search for players eligible to play for the Matao where he has successfully brought in Tulsa Roughnecks’ Mason Grimes and L.A. Galaxy’s A.J. DeLaGarza who also played for the U.S. national team. By infusing global talent to his local stars, White has somehow managed to establish a competitive core and, despite being the underdogs, were able to bag wins against India (ranked 162nd) and Turkmenistan (ranked 114th) in 2015.
The wins inspired not just their fans, but also, the team. They were motivated by realizing they can win on the global stage despite several losses that followed. Still, White is determined to develop football in the country and started his own national academy where around 150 young footballers attended. Also, since Guam couldn’t sustain their own professional local league, White started campaigning for their top teams to be included in overseas tournaments.
“We’ve got some of our best players where they want to be, like the MLS or the USL, but others are in limbo,” said White. “They either don’t want to leave the island or need another year or two of development, so Guam is thinking of going into the J.League (Japan’s professional league) in the third division. We’re just looking now. It’s cost versus the effort. It’s either Japan, the Philippines or Hong Kong. It’s got to be somewhere with a direct flight to Guam.”
It has been an uphill challenge for White and the Matao since he took on the job in 2012 and certainly, we have yet to see the best of the Guam national squad. However, through their hardwork, determination, and the support of their fans, the Matao has earned recognition as a team on the rise – and it all began thanks to the genuine passion of Gary White to the beautiful game.
“What the gaffer has done is one of the most amazing things in the history of football,” said Guam skipper and captain Jason Cunliffe.