Soccer / World Cup

White has Guam on move in 2018 qualifying

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times

For a man who grew up on a council estate in Southampton, England, Gary White has come a long, long way.

The current national team manager of Guam’s soccer team is making headlines around the soccer world for all the right reasons.

The past week has seen his team claim not just its first-ever World Cup qualifying round victory, a home win over Turkmenistan, but also a massive second triumph for the 165,000 population nation against the starting 11 of India’s 1.25 billion residents.

Just 15 years ago, Guam was a team suffering 16-0 and 19-0 losses in its last foray on the FIFA World Cup stage.

But now, managed by an Englishman who initially had no idea where Guam was, the Pacific island nominally under U.S. control is turning heads in a bid to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

White, 40, spoke just prior to leaving Tokyo, where he maintains a home — and one day wants to coach — a fortnight before his ongoing roller-coaster ride began.

Asked about his first memory of the game, he responded with a tale that will resonate with many an English soccer fan regardless of age.

“I must have been about 6 or 7 years old,” he told The Japan Times. “There was a park near my house and so many kids that we were always 11 vs. 11 or so. If you were playing OK, you stayed on. If you messed up, you were off and someone else came on.

“My school, Oakwood Middle School in Southampton was the best in (the county of) Hampshire.

“Of those in my year, seven of around 15 kids turned professional.”

One of the seven was White himself, who, as a youngster, signed with his local top-flight team Southampton FC.

“Unfortunately I was released from Southampton aged 17 then had trials at Exeter, Plymouth and Bristol Rovers, but I started to lose interest because I didn’t like the surroundings,” he said.

“I played non-league at Bognor Regis for a while under Jack Pearce. He had a big influence on me and the course my career was to take.”

That “course,” which began just two years after his release from Southampton, saw him head Down Under to play in Australia’s A-League predecessor for Fremantle City.

After two years in Australia, the realization hit home that a career playing professionally “would be a long hard road.”

“I was good enough to (play as a) career but not to make the money I wanted,” he said.

“So at 21, I peeked into the future and decided this won’t work.”

White turned to coaching while still a player.

“I had already done all my English F.A. licenses when I was 16 or 17 (you had to do that as a player at that point),” he said.

Moving back to England via a brief spell with the New Jersey Metrostars, he took the next qualification required of the coaching ladder at the time, his “C” license, and was soon working in Major League Soccer youth academies. This was when “coaching really took off for me. I could see a career in (it).”

A UEFA B license followed just as FIFA started a financial aid program for developing countries.

Looking to advance his career, White then sent his “very shallow resume” to every country in the world with a national team. By fax.

There were only “two or three responses” he confessed.

One was from the British Virgin Islands.

“So I went there, aged 23 or 24 and head coach of a national team with next to no experience,” he said.

“Most of the players were older than me and I could see how shocked they were.”

Over the next few months, however, the team started getting results that belied conventional wisdom and “we went up 28 places in the world rankings in just six months.”

Offered the position of manager of the Bahamas next, his arrival saw another increase in the world rankings; this time up 55 places over the course of seven years.

White was on the road to a record that still stands today: every national team he has managed rising to its highest ever national ranking on FIFA’s international ranking list under his leadership.

Next step on his coaching career ladder was another trip stateside where he worked as technical director for Washington Youth Soccer and the Seattle Sounders of the MLS.

Success duly followed.

WYS had never won anything at the youth level, but in the three years White was in his post it collected 10 trophies.

An offer to manage the Guam national team followed in a less than orthodox manner, and involving a rather large dose of being in the right place at the right time.

White received an email from an executive in Seattle asking him to meet with the president of an Asian nation’s soccer association.

That president was Richard Lai, the president of the Guam Football Association.

“Richard has been the best motivator I have ever met” White said.

“He told me his plans for Guam football, and asked if I knew anyone (who might be) interested in that kind of job. He knew I would ask for it and I left (the) first meeting telling him I would think about it.”

White searched Lai’s background online, discovering him to be an AFC executive member and a member of the FIFA development committee.

“I also looked up where Guam was, and mistook it for Laos,” he confessed.

A second meeting with Lai saw White invited to Guam to run a few sessions.

“After a week I was offered the job but did have to think about it, as I was loving my job in the U.S. I was on the U.S. soccer national team staff and also the national development task force, but in the end opted to head to the Pacific.”

The training center on Guam is, according to White, “as good as anywhere I have ever seen — a $5 million assisted facility.”

And much of the “assistance” the Guam team receives comes from the Japan Football Association.

“The JFA and GFA relationship is very close” White said.

“The three former coaches before me were Japan Football Association coaches, but Richard Lai wanted an English- speaking coach.”

Even with Guam opting for a non-Japanese coach, the JFA still supports the nation with other coaching staff and equipment.

“They are great mentors to Guam” admitted White.

And Japan’s support is certainly starting to pay off.

“Over seven games to July of 2014, we had three wins, three ties, and just one loss to former World Cup quarterfinalist North Korea. And one of our ties was to Singapore, four-time South Asian champions.”

Then on June 11, in its World Cup qualifier against Turkmenistan, Guam, as the world now knows, won.

India followed and Guam under White, now ranked 174th in the world after a 2014 high of 160, has its first scalp in a FIFA World Cup.

Whether or not Guam makes it to the 2018 finals remains to be seen.

Whether or not White moves on up the career ladder into a managerial post in Japan, then as England boss is also still up in the air.

Best not bet against either for now.