Sorry but We Prefer Baseball
When the Micronesia football team was trounced 30-0 by Tahiti, then drubbed 38-0 by Fiji, and finally pummelled 46-0 by Vanuatu, its players would surely have been asking themselves why. To properly address that question, it is first necessary to distinguish the Federated States of Micronesia, the country which suffered that fate at the recent Pacific Games, from the wider Micronesia region (above), which incorporates a number of other nations, such as Palau, Nauru and Kiribati, and US territories, including Guam.
One obvious answer is that FS Micronesia is small but, at the Pacific Games, size is not much of an excuse. Tahiti and Vanuatu both have populations about two and half times as large but this is not enough to account for such huge winning margins. It is true that the team was inexperienced – many players had not been on an 11-a-side pitch before – but this is an explanation which begs a further explanation. Why are Micronesians less interested in developing their football skills than the people of Vanuatu (below)?
There are three ways for sports to spread around the world. The first is imperialism – organised sport grew rapidly during the Age of Empire – which explains why cricket is popular in Australia, India and the West Indies, but not in Indonesia or Brazil. They can also move from one neighbour to another. The development of rugby union in France was aided by the proximity of British clubs to play against. Thirdly, immigration is often important factor, as when a returning migrant coached Lithuania to play basketball.
FS Micronesia did not set a new world record with their defeats. These were under-23 matches in an Olympic qualifying event and the biggest scoreline in a full international remains American Samoa’s 31-0 thrashing at the hands of Australia. But therein lies a clue to the significance of colonial history for them both. Like American Samoa is now, most countries in the Micronesia region were once administered by the United States. Many of them had earlier been in Japanese control and the two baseball-loving nations have shaped their sporting culture. US soldiers introduced baseball to Guam and Japan did the same for Palau. Baseball at the Pacific Games has been dominated by the teams from the Micronesia region and by American Samoa. Even tiny Palau, with a population of 18,000, has won a gold medal while FS Micronesia has picked up a couple of bronzes.
So it’s not that Micronesia is incapable of getting a team together and training it up to a sufficient calibre. It is just that it would rather do so in baseball than in football. Further confirmation is provided by what appears to be an exception. Nauru was administered by Australia instead of the US and it now has a decent side at Australian Rules Football.
But Micronesia has another problem which American Samoa does not have. It is (even more) geographically isolated which makes finding opponents difficult. Of the seven members of the United Nations which are not also represented in FIFA, five are in the Micronesia region and, once again, it is the exception which proves the rule. Guam has joined FIFA but chooses to play in the Asian qualifying competition for the World Cup because it is far closer to Japan than it is to New Zealand. And unlike the United States, which is warming to football partly because of immigration from Latin America, people are leaving Micronesia for larger countries. This might seem surprising to us. There is a certain appeal to an island idyll which even the grubby tentacles of FIFA cannot reach.
Next week: Why Eritrea wants to be a cycling nation even though it is better at running