The Guam national team is just a speck on the map of world soccer. But in just more than a year on the job, England-born manager Gary White has his squad from the tiny South Pacific island beating opponents it used to lose to by two or more touchdowns. Last year, Guam reached 178th in the FIFA world rankings, its highest position ever.
Earlier this week, Guam missed out on qualifying for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup but did finish its group play with a resounding 3-0 victory over Chinese Taipei. In the current FIFA rankings, Guam, whose nickname is the "Matao," now sits at 183rd in the world.
The 38-year-old White has worked this kind of magic before. In 1999, he got his first coaching gig at age 24 with the British Virgin Islands. In one year, he helped the team rise 28 places in the world rankings. White moved to the Bahamas in 2000, and he lifted that squad 55 places on the FIFA's leaderboard before taking over Guam last February.
His next move could be a big one, perhaps even back to his native Britain to coach a professional club. But before he goes anywhere, White offered ESPN Playbook eight thoughts about his strategy on how to win big in a small place.
1. Feel free to take chances.
“When you manage in smaller countries, you have the luxury to be creative without the pressure of being fired the next day. In the British Virgin Islands, if I wanted to see what it was like to play with three central defenders in a live match against Antigua, I could and it wouldn’t come back to bite me. I could see what worked and what didn’t, because I was in an environment where it was OK to experiment. At bigger clubs, coaches are under so much pressure to get results, they usually go with what’s safe instead of trying new things. At every stop I’ve made, I’ve been able to grow as a coach because I could be creative and experiment with different formations and lineups and strategies. That prepares you for the next challenge.”
2. Manage more than just your players.
“In my 13 years of experience, I think one of the most important things is the management of everything around you. It’s not just the management of players and training sessions. You’re also managing the people above you. You have to develop good relationships with the people on the executive board. The first thing I did here was drum up support. I looked at how much the executive board of the Guam Football Association wanted to be successful. Richard Lai, the president of the GFA, had a desire that matched mine. If he wanted it and I wanted it, then I knew I just had to get the players and the country to want it.”
3. Be flexible.
“Prior to me, the coaches here were always Japanese. They were very good coaches, but they tried to bring the Japanese culture with them, which clashed. In Japanese culture, the coaching is very disciplined, but they came into more of an American culture here in Guam, with American TV, American foods and American structure. There wasn’t that close relationship between the coach and the player. It was just, ‘This is what we’re doing. Go do it.’ In a more Western society like this, you need to get buy-in from players to make it work."
4. Think global, act local.
“Junkanoo is an annual festival in the Bahamas where large groups march through the streets in bright costumes playing trumpets and cowbells and goatskin drums. When it all comes together, it’s this cool, energetic music. We’d have one of these groups at every home game playing constantly throughout the games. Our fans loved it. So when I got to Guam, I wanted to include the indigenous Chamorro culture. We have the pledge to the country, kind of like a chant in the Chamorro language, that we do before every game and training session. All our teams do it, and it’s created a cultural bond between the locals and the soccer teams, including our youth teams. It brings the best out of people and reminds the players who they’re playing for.”
5. A can’t-lose mentality is a huge asset.
“The Japanese coaches looked at the players they had and, rather than try to bring the best out of them, tried to prevent goals from being scored. I said, ‘If we’re going to lose, we may as well go down with a fight.’ We started playing a very aggressive style going to goal. The players bought into that immediately because it allowed them to express themselves and be more creative.”
6. It’s not about size, it’s about experience.
“The average age of our national team is 23. I remember during the postmatch press conference after the loss to Hong Kong, someone asked what else I could want from my players. I said, ‘I wish they were older, but there’s nothing I can do about that.’ Some of the mistakes we make are naive, while the bigger teams are technically better because their players have more experience on the ball. But as we prepare for upcoming games, we’ll benefit from the Hong Kong game and our matches in the East Asian Football Championship semifinal. We’ll keep layering our experiences and get better along the way.”
7. Recruiting is a huge part of the job.
“When I first sat down with our staff to find out if we’d seen every player who could technically play for Guam, it wasn’t even close. I used my contacts all over the world to spread the word that we were looking for players, and they started coming out of the woodwork. For instance, we found out [New England Revolution midfielder] Ryan Guy’s father was born in Guam. We know there are still players out there who don’t know they’re eligible. It’s a big pool we’re still trying to tap into.”
8. Expectations should be calculated, not tempered.
“I don’t go into anything blindly. I research the situation to see how to approach things. I’m a lot more strategic in terms of what I’m trying to do than I was when I first started out. We have a 10-year plan in Guam to become the fifth-strongest team in East Asia. It’s too much of a jump to go No. 1 because of where we were. Fifth is still a hefty goal, but once I set a goal, it’s all guns blazing.”