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Marshall Islands: Lloyd Owers appointed technical director of last country without a national football team

The Marshall Islands are the self-proclaimed last country on Earth without a national football team; Marshall Islands Soccer Federation was founded in 2020 to bring football to the Pacific Ocean nation; Lloyd Owers was appointed as the nation's first technical director in December

Image: Lloyd Owers, 33, was appointed technical director of the Marshall Islands in December 2022

There is a good reason you are likely to have never heard of the Marshall Islands national team.

Simply put, it does not yet exist.

The tiny nation of five islands, 29 atolls and around 60,000 people, which is situated in the Pacific Ocean, more than 3,000 miles off the north east coast of Australia, has no prior football history and, as a result, is the self-proclaimed last country on Earth without international representation in the sport.

It is a fact perfect for a pub quiz - but one that is in the process of being rectified.

Image courtesy of Marshall Islands Soccer Federation
Image: The Republic of the Marshall Islands is an independent island country and microstate near the Equator in the Pacific Ocean

In 2020, the wheels were set in motion when the Marshall Islands Soccer Federation (MISF) was founded and in December, a significant step was taken when its first ever technical director was appointed.

Step forward Lloyd Owers.

The 33-year-old, who lives in Oxfordshire, played semi-professionally until he was 24 and now teaches sports coaching to people aged 18+ and adult learners. He has previously worked for the FA, delivering coach education workshops, and holds both a UEFA B Licence and a Masters degree in coaching.

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Following his degree, he started a blog to post coaching session plans, articles and interviews with coaches from all walks of life - it was nothing much more than a passion project. But an interview with Samoan national team members gained traction online and, before long, he had discussions with MISF president Shem Livai, which led to a job offer.

It has been a whirlwind, but the chance to become part of history was too good to spurn. As a result, he speaks about the opportunity with genuine vigour and the smile of a kid in a sweet shop.

"It's just such a big project," Owers said. "But they do have a real ambition to push on; they don't want to sit around and be idle and playing small local games here and there.

"They want to be Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) members as soon as possible and they also want to be FIFA members eventually because they want the opportunity to be part of the world stage.

"Neighbouring countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati are affiliate members of the OFC, but they don't have the infrastructure in the countries to allow full membership of OFC because they don't have things like hotels on the islands, whereas the Marshall Islands do.

"They have a good structure. It's limited, but there are transport links to get to the main islands, so they have everything in place other than the football structure, which they want to develop. There's a national stadium that's nearly completed now, too. It was meant to be due to for completion in July, but it looks like it's going to be a lot sooner because they are hosting the Micronesian Games in July.

"Available land is quite limited and a lot of the islands aren't big enough to hold a football pitch. Kwajalein has football pitches in the high school and on the US military base, while the capital, Majuro, has parks and space available, though it's very informal, with no structure."

So if football is played on the Marshall Islands, albeit largely recreationally and with limited space, why has it taken until now for a plan to elevate the game to be put in place?

Image courtesy of Marshall Islands Soccer Federation
Image: The population of the Marshall Islands is spread out over five islands and 29 coral atolls

"There's such a big connection to the USA because of the military base, so there is money that goes back from the US government to the Marshall Islands each year and then there's a free trade of people that can go from the Marshall Islands to the United States and vice-versa.

"And because the game is growing in the USA, the game then is naturally growing in the Marshall Islands as well. Baseball and basketball are the dominant sports at the moment, as you don't need a lot of equipment or players to play and they are easily accessible because of the US connections.

"But there's a growing need now in children and teenagers that want to play football in the country, so they're the ones that are driving it, telling their parents and teachers that they want to play soccer, as they call it."

That is where Owers comes in. It is far from being as simple as picking a team of Marshallese players and cracking on; this project requires solid foundations, education and realistic, long-term goals.

Needless to say, there is currently no pressure of a timeframe being put on when the project might bear fruit.

"At the moment, the focus is on building from the ground up, the top down and meeting in the middle," he says.

"We'll first roll out the school curriculum, which has been created and planned, and that will be rolled out into schools across the country and all the islands, which then links into the youth structure, a lot of which will be small-sided because of the space available.

Image courtesy of Marshall Islands Soccer Federation
Image: Available land is limited and a lot of the Marshall Islands are not big enough to accommodate a football pitch

"At the same time, we will push the national team and initially, it will be the men's game, but we have strong plans to improve and develop the female game as well.

"I've got a couple of calls booked in with some technical directors of OFC member nations to discuss their approaches because there might be things that, culturally, we can take into our approach and probably things we can't take because of the difference in size of the countries.

"If we can get the national team identity, which we've started to build, that's great. But if we can build that player pool, raise the awareness, look at kit sponsors and then we can start to dream a little bit more and have an idea of where we are at."

The US links will help to increase the number of players eligible for selection - Owers says 30,000 Marshallese people live in the state of Arkansas alone. The only draw-back is the cost of reaching the remote nation without OFC or FIFA backing.

That means Owers has not even managed to visit the Marshall Islands himself yet.

"I plan on getting out in July, but if there is an opportunity to get out in March, April time then I'll do that," he adds.

"It's going to be great to meet people, but at the same time, with what we've planned, there's a massive need to deliver coach education workshops to people on the islands, so the sooner I can get out, the better.

"I think there are only four routes into the country. The easiest involves getting to Hawaii and then connecting to Majuro from there, but it's very expensive, so we are very reliant on fundraising and sponsorship at the moment.

"Our main angle at the moment is trying raise awareness of the game, raise awareness of the country and hopefully draw some people that want to back it with sponsorships or fundraising in general, because even things like equipment and kit are going to be limited initially.

"But we've had a lot of people reach out wanting to be coaches, wanting to be the national team manager. It's unbelievable. We've got players that are definitely not Marshallese, but are wanting to represent the nation! There's been a lot of interest, which is fantastic."

As with any project, success will not be immediate and it will only be some way down the line that Owers and the MISF staff are able to evaluate its impact. But he's in it for the long haul.

"I honestly would love the opportunity to see this as a long-term project because I think it's such a unique story and to be a part of that process is going to be massive.

"If there's an opportunity to be the person - even if it's in a small way - that is part of something to gain OFC membership, FIFA membership that puts the country on the map, then I'd like to be a part of that process."

The Marshall Islands project is starting to pick up momentum. Watch this space.

Support The Marshall Islands via GoFundMe here

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