Guangzhou: Tiny Guam are accustomed to against-all-odds clashes, but on Thursday Jason Cunliffe and his teammates face one of their most daunting challenges as Asia’s smallest association takes on the largest as the Pacific Islanders meet China PR in Group A of the Asian Qualifiers.
For veteran midfielder Cunliffe, though, facing off against a team representing a vast nation is nothing new; and the 35-year-old is hoping history repeats as Guam look to hand China a result similar to the one meted out to India four years ago.
The Matao made international headlines in 2015 when, in the second round of the Asian Qualifiers, Guam followed up a surprise 1-0 win over Turkmenistan with a shock 2-1 victory against India, a side representing a nation with a population well in excess of 1 billion.
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With Guam home to little more than 160,000 people, the odds Cunliffe and company overcame that day were daunting. On Thursday against Marcello Lippi’s China the challenge is even more overwhelming, but that is not something that gives the Guam captain cause for concern.
“I think this is a perfect game for us,” said Cunliffe, whose team have lost their opening games against the Maldives and the Philippines.
“Obviously we were disappointed in the previous two results. We think we should have got points off both teams, but here’s maybe a banana peel game for China where they’re looking at it thinking: here’s a team that they should probably – statistically speaking and in every other variable that’s accounted for – walk over us easily.
“But if they look past us towards the Philippines it could be their downfall.”
Those losses at home to the Maldives and the Philippines last month have left Guam pointless and bottom of the standings while China cruised to victory in their one game so far against the Maldives in Male, with naturalised Brazilian striker Elkeson scoring his first goals for his new nation in a 5-0 win.
Cunliffe, however, chooses to see Thursday’s game as an opportunity as football in Guam continues to develop and rebuild after their withdrawal from the final round of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019.
Those wins over India and Turkmenistan as well as a draw with Oman qualified the islanders – then coached by Englishman Gary White - for the final phase of qualifying for the Finals in the United Arab Emirates, only for a lack of funds to force the federation to pull the team out of the campaign before the decisive round commenced.
“You can call it naïve but we completely believe we can go in here and get a result,” Cunliffe told the-AFC.com. “I was asked before about the pressure of playing in front of 50,000 fans but there’s no pressure for us. Everyone expects us to lose.
“It’s an opportunity for us, it’s an opportunity for some of our younger players to gain these experiences and it’s an opportunity for us to grow and test ourselves against a top team in our group and see what we’re made of. As competitors, that’s all you can really ask for. You always want to play against the best.
“We had more experienced players in the squad four years ago, whereas overall we’re a less experienced team this time around. But in terms of development of the squad and Guam football we’re on a much better path now."
“The unfortunate incident of withdrawing from the Asian Cup qualifiers and missing out on two years of matches set us back a bit. But when our new coach Karl Dodd came in, he was the best kind of coach we could have had come in. Gary White is a great coach and a great man manager, but I think we lacked some of the tactical side of things and Karl is at the opposite end of that spectrum.
“While he is a young coach and definitely working on the man management side of things, the tactical side is brilliant and his selection is perfect for our evolution as a team and as a country. The things that he’s done since he’s been here have been outstanding.”
Qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Finals might be a pipedream for Guam, but advancing to the next phase of the Asian Qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023 remains a goal Cunliffe believes is attainable. And a shock victory over the 2023 tournament hosts on Thursday would be a way to put that challenge back on track.
“When we came here we were joking around saying there’s probably more people here in our hotel in Guangzhou or in the facility that we’re staying in than on our island,” said Cunliffe.
“We use the size of our opponent as a tool and see it as a David versus Goliath kind of situation. It’s us against them and we’ve already slayed one giant – in population terms at least – so why not take one more down?”
Photos: Guam Football Association, AFP
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