With the current rate of sea-level rise, the Marshall Islands could be largely underwater by 2035, so it’s a race against time for them to play their first football game.
And three Englishmen are trying to make that happen.
The self-proclaimed last nation on Earth without a football team, the Marshall Islands Football Confederation (MIFC) has been working towards its first professional fixture since its founding in 2020.
The atoll-based Pacific nation has been tied to the US in some capacity since a 1944 takeover, and with just 42,000 permanent residents, many of whom are aligned with US culture, implementing a football programme has been a challenge.
London-based marketing director, Matt Webb, joined their efforts in a voluntary capacity after reading about the nation in an article on The Athletic back in 2022.
He said: “It’s an amazing cause and a great project to be a part of.
“I found the email of the president and pestered him a little bit to let me get involved and eventually he relented.”
Little did he know, but fellow Englishman and St Mary’s University graduate Lloyd Owers was also getting involved with the Marshallese campaign.
Owers, who has previous coaching experience at Oxford United and Oxford City on his CV, has taken up a role as Director of Football at the MIFC.
Webb and Owers, together with well-travelled coach Justin Walley, are looking to inspire a football culture in a country with just one full-size pitch.
Webb added: “Lloyd will be out there in August delivering sessions, going to schools, delivering workshops.
“There might not be an awful lot of time to complete an international fixture as a country and 2030 could be the last World Cup qualification cycle we can be a part of because of the rising seas.
“We’re looking at how we can build a team for now whilst also making sure we can give the kids a chance to build an interest in football and potentially become football players and give them the skills for the future, whatever that might be.”
Without being joined to a local FIFA confederation, the MISF have looked to crowdfunding donations and selling their new kits around the world.
The sheer cost of making it to the Marshall Islands – the most popular route is via Hawaii – means that Owers has only made it out there once before, with another trip planned soon.
The cost has also been prohibitive when it comes to organising fixtures, but there are plans for an international debut in 2024.
A Micronesian five-a-side futsal tournament on home soil might prove the start point before a possible full XI fixture before the end of the year.
This will build on a domestic futsal league which is already in full swing, as having a league is one of the requirements for possible Oceania Football Confederation or Asian Football Confederation membership.
Before inviting international competition, however, they will need to assemble a team and there are already scouts exploring American mainland-based populations of Marshallese people for possible players.
Webb said: “We’re identifying players through college and school recruitment to see if there’s anyone who might be interested in playing for us if the opportunity arises, but we’ll also try and develop talent in the Marshall Islands.
“One of the big challenges is that a lot of people do up sticks and leave due to the economic situation but we’re trying to explore both groups the same time.”
Finding willing participants, particularly from settled groups in Arkansas, Nevada and Oklahoma will be vital to not only establishing a team, but one that can compete at least on a local scale.
The Marshall Islands kit can be purchased here, with sales funding their ongoing programmes.
Featured image credit: Chewy Lin / MIFC