Marshall Islands: The last country on Earth without a national football team

10 October 2023 0 By Total Football News

An image of a goal post on a beach in the Marshall IslandsThe Marshall Islands are the self-proclaimed last country on Earth without a football team

It is the last country on Earth without a national football team. But for how much longer?

The chain of volcanic islands and coral-based atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that form the Marshall Islands have long been associated, from afar, with a role as the host of US nuclear testing.

Now it hopes to become an independent force in world football.

There is some way to go before such dreams can become a reality.

At the forefront of those aspirations – not only to create a Marshall Islands national team, but one which can be competitive globally – is Englishman Lloyd Owers.

From Oxfordshire, with a coaching background that has taken him to countries including Canada, the USA and Sweden, Owers has been tasked with building the foundations that will deliver international football to the game’s final frontier.

It all started in “random conversations” with the president of the country’s football association, Shem Livai, following online coaching blog posts written by Owers.

“It started via emails, then it became easier to speak via WhatsApp because of the time difference,” Owers told BBC Sport.

“Then it got to the stage where I was asked to put together a proposal alongside my own philosophy on how I saw the game growing.”

Lloyd Owers leads a presentation on football coaching in the Marshall IslandsLloyd Owers led talks and sessions on his first visit to the Marshall Islands earlier this year

Owers, technical director for the Marshall Islands, made the 13,000km journey to the country for the first time this summer.

There, he oversaw the first football session for children led by the Marshall Islands Soccer Federation (MISF), founded by Livai in 2020.

The target, however long it may take, is for the nation of 60,000 to achieve Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) membership – before ultimately contesting global fixtures.

For the 33-year-old Owers, the opportunity to lead the ambitious project from its infancy was one he could not turn down.

“On a personal level it was the opportunity to be part of something that was as big as this; the only nation in the world without a defined national team,” added Owers.

“But it was also the ambition of it. The federation wants to be part of the OFC, but also wants to eventually become a Fifa member.

“They don’t just want to be playing against local countries, they want to be part of a bigger programme.

“We know we want to be part of World Cup qualifiers. We want be part of the OFC Championship, we want be part of mainstream football.

“I think in 10 years, if we keep going the way the federation wants to push their aims and ambitions, there’s no reason that wouldn’t happen.”

The US detonated an atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands in 1946The US detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958

The Marshall Islands were occupied by the US following World War Two and used as a base for nuclear weapons testing, but eventually became a sovereign nation in 1986.

And while that association is one the nation is keen to move on from, Owers believes the American cultural influence is in part responsible for the increasing popularity of soccer on the islands.

“There’s obviously nothing to hide from that because it’s part of their culture, it’s part of the history,” he said.

“There’s a fully functioning US military base in Kwajalein. It’s part of their identity and, because it’s very heavily US cultured, there is a lot of interest in sports such as baseball and basketball.

“But now with football, or soccer, because that has grown in the States, it has also grown on the Marshall Islands.”

While the fallout from US nuclear testing still impacts life in the Marshall Islands, climate change provides an immediate environmental threat – with rising sea levels an ever-present concern.

In the capital, Majuro, a national stadium surrounded by sea defences is under construction. There, the World Bank predicts a one metre rise would flood 40% of buildings.

“Over recent years there there has been a massive eye-opening realisation that the Marshall Islands will unfortunately lose a lot of islands – and by 2050 will lose most of the land,” said Owers.

It is hoped, through football, the nation can draw greater attention to the impact climate change is having.

When the MISF first announced its dream on social media, few involved – Owers included, could have imagined the positive reaction it would receive.

SoccerFedMI on 'X': "We are the last country on earth without a national football team. Finally, we hope, that is about to change. Please follow us and help us achieve our dream of international soccer on the Marshall Islands!"The MISF has gained around 5,000 followers since joining ‘X’, formerly known as Twitter, in January

The nation has since revealed its first football shirt, which it is hoped the Marshallese players will wear during their inaugural match by July or August 2024.

The federation said it had been “absolutely overwhelmed by the wonderful positive responses we have received from people all over the world” to the shirt – the profits from which are to be reinvested into grassroots programs, infrastructure and training facilities.

“We were hoping but we weren’t expecting,” Owers said of the reaction. “We had like 1,500 followers on Twitter alone within two or three days, unbelievable. We really didn’t expect that at all.

“The initial process of getting involved was to help create an awareness for the country, which we’ve managed to achieve. The whole buy-in to the country’s football has been amazing.

“For us, it was first about putting the country on to the map. We’ve done that – people didn’t know where it was.

“If you look on Google Maps, it’s a tiny little dot. When I went over a month ago it took over 40 hours to get there and, when you do get there, you realise how small the country is.”

The kit design was produced by a competition winner from Argentina, whose idea was chosen from more than 200 applicants.

The vibrant blue and orange is representative of the national flag colours, while the patterns and stripes have cultural connotations and reflect the island’s connection to the ocean.

According to Owers, it has already been sold in more than 30 countries since going on sale in late September.

Lloyd Owers leads a football session for children in the Marshall IslandsLloyd Owers has been tasked with growing soccer on the Marshall Islands

The next – and rather crucial – challenge for Owers is to establish a competitive squad of players to represent the first Marshall Islands team once the nation is ready to contest an international football fixture.

To achieve that, he plans to begin recruiting close to home, including from those currently playing on surrounding islands in nations with established club and national sides.

Beyond that, progress towards building a sustainable infrastructure has already begun, with a league structure now in place and regular organised sessions available to children and adults each week.

“There’s a lot of players in the surrounding islands,” added Owers. “We’ve got the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea – all of those nations who do actually play. Those guys are living on the Marshall Islands and they’re helping to grow the game.

“First we will be competing against local nations who have similar aims – but our objectives long-term are a lot bigger than that.

“We want to be recognised by Fifa and we want to be part of the Confederation Games and Olympic qualifiers.”