Who? Exactly. Palau are one of a number of tiny islands whose football teams have been out of action for over a decade. Located in the Pacific Ocean with a population of just 20,000, Palau is never going to be a football superpower, even in FIFA’s weaker confederations.
Football on the island began in March of 1987 when a Palau side competed in the Oceania Club Championship. Unsurprisingly, Palau were knocked out by Vanuatu in the competition’s first round, losing 6-2, but this should have been an important stepping stone in making Palau’s team competitive against their equally minute rivals.
However, the country’s football fanatics (all 3 of them) had to wait until July 1998 for Palau’s next match. The delay between games may have been disappointing but the result certainly wasn’t – Palau registered their first ever win with a 7-1 thumping of Pohnpei, a side that has been coached by Englishman Paul Watson in recent years. The success continued in the next match with another 7-1 victory, against another Micronesian state. Both of these wins came at the 1998 Micronesian Games held in Palau, but even home advantage wasn’t enough to help the side claim the comparatively large scalps of Guam and Northern Marianas Islands in August 1998.
Palau were thrashed 15-2 by Guam and 12-1 by Northern Marianas Islands. Considering Guam themselves were annihilated 21-0 by North Korea in 2005, Palau still had a long way to go, but the future looked bright as long as regular, competitive matches against similar opposition were set up.
Unfortunately, this never happened. That miserable 12-1 loss to Northern Marianas Islands on 2 August 1998 remains Palau’s most recent international fixture. As the 20th century drew to a close progress appeared to have stagnated and football seemed to be in decline on the island.
However, hope was offered by the formation of the Palau Soccer League in 2004. The first edition was won by Daewoo Ngatpang who defeated Mount Everest Nepal in the final. Other countries had showed that creating a national league could be a vital step in forming a competitive national side; Paul Watson formed his Pohnpeian team from the National League’s best players, and this is something that could have been copied in Palau.
Again, however, this failed to materialize. While the league continued to provide hope for the standard of football on the island, with annual tournaments starting to be set up, the most recent championship was in 2007 and the league now appears to have been disbanded. The fact that the most recent winners were Team Bangladesh suggests that foreigners were more enthusiastic than the locals, and now that Palau no longer has any evidence of football being played places huge doubt on the chances of the island ever playing an international match again.
Incredibly, 2009 saw the East Asian Football Federation announce that they had received a request from Palau to become a “quasi-member” of the association, once more providing hope for a seemingly lost cause. But without a league and having last played over a decade ago, you could be forgiven for thinking Palau’s application may not be immediately accepted. That seems to be the case – with no further developments on the request, Palau will continue to drift further and further away from their next international game until something changes.
One bright spot is the Palau Football Association’s work to give youngsters the chance to play the game. Although the PFA website invites mockery by boasting that it reaches the rather modest sum of “approximately 200 youth per year through school and after school activities” any attempt to improve matters can only be seen as positive. Woefully short of funds, the PFA relies on “a handful of parents/coaches” to keep football going. It appears that an unlikely invitation to join the EAFF is Palau’s only hope – and although youth coaching is promising, an adult league and team is needed for this to happen.
With the right structure and leadership, Palau could have been on a par with countries such as Guam and Northern Marianas Islands, but no-one has taken control of football on the island, allowing facilities and enthusiasm to gradually rot away. It could have all been so different.