Nottingham coach makes 8,000-mile journey to train team representing tiny island nation

Video: Chris puts Notts TV’s Jake Meskell through his paces before heading to Pohnpei

Last month Nottingham football coach Chris Smith travelled more than 8,000 miles to Micronesia to train the Pohnpei State Team, representing one of the world’s smallest island nations.

With young people struggling for motivation and entertainment, the state is suffering global highs of both obesity and suicide rates.

Adopting the role of of Pohnpei’s new football technical director, Chris travelled for three days before arriving in Micronesia and has since battled against toad infested pitches to coach more than 500 children how to play football.  He spoke to Liam Hunt about his experiences so far.

“Things were hectic in the last few weeks before leaving but I was lucky enough to get invited to TalkSport to talk with Hawksbee and and Jacobs who have always been big supporters of football development across the world.

The trip to London and visit to the studios was great fun and we used the opportunity to ask for any donations that could help such as football kits and boots.

We also announced the new Pohnpei shirt was available for sale.

I am normally quite a relaxed traveller but this time I had a 30 kilogram luggage allowance in order to take as much as I could to help football in Pohnpei – I allowed myself seven kilograms for my own stuff.

The last few days became a rush to collect donations and make sure I had everything ready; if I forgot something could I be sure I could get it in Micronesia?

Could I be forgetting something that could affect the whole project?

Chris wearing the official Pohnpei State football shirt.

Literally four hours before my flight, I met with ex-Pohnpei coach Paul Watson to pick up some surprise donations.

They included a huge kit bag from the Kits4Causes charity that had two full teams worth of unused Aston Villa training tops and Stoke City shorts – cue some last minute repacking and a rush to the airport!

My journey to Micronesia was, in a word, endless.

It took roughly three days and I forgot what the world outside airports looked like; I left Heathrow on the evening of April 12, the flight to Beijing was roughly 11 hours and then a five hour flight to Manila.

Now only halfway there, I continued another five hours to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and before I knew it it was time to fly my last four hours to Pohnpei arriving at 1am local time on April 16 – although my body had no idea what time it was!

Firstly, I could not believe how comfortable I felt in Pohnpei, I had expected to feel very lost and out my depth.

I was being looked after by an American expat, Steve Finnen, who helps run the Soccer Association here and he was great at helping me feel at home and helped me explore the town in my first few days.

The island is like a ‘paradise’ says Chris.

The people of Pohnpei have been great, I would say I was greeted initially with curiosity rather than excitement, but there is a huge appetite to embrace new things here.

A big surprise has been how much Pohnpei has embraced sports in the last few years, with children playing mostly basketball and volleyball – and soon football – wherever you look.

There are plenty of facilities to match this passion.

I was told, and read, that Micronesia has a reputation for being unhealthy and unfit so it’s great to see things have really started to turn around already.

By the time I arrived here, I had got over the devastating news that there is no beaches on the island, however I really wasn’t prepared for just what a paradise it is here.

Chris says the island is ‘aggressively lush and green’.

I feel quite bad for those that came here before me because I have things a lot easier.

It seems a lot has progressed in the last few years here; I have broadband internet, the ability to buy most of the things I could at home and, most importantly, a lot more support than ever to do our work.

I have been able to hit the ground running and have been very busy within a short period of time.

I came to Pohnpei with two main goals; to help children here to have the opportunity to play and learn football more, and to help coach the Pohnpei State Team and set the foundations for the Micronesian Games next year.

In what I believe to be the probably the best thing to be ever done for the island, the Governor of Pohnpei applied for a grant from the Guam Football Association to receive 500 footballs, which have since been distributed to all elementary schools in Pohnpei.

School children enjoying Chris’s training drills.

Then, in my first week here I was invited to the Department of Education to speak to the Director of Education and all their Elementary School Principals.

I was very happy that most principals really wanted help in bringing football to their schools and was able to start arranging visits straight away.

With the knowledge that all elementary schools have balls, and the principals really want them to learn football, my plan became to visit as many schools as possible.

In my second week in Pohnpei I have covered every corner of this island, visiting eight schools and working with over 500 children, all of who had a great time learning a new game.

In addition, I’ve been spending all my weekday evenings working with our Pohnpei State and Ponhpei Premier League players.

I’ve been amazed by the passion and dedication of these players, as well as their desire to be coached and learn; the style here, at all ages, I would describe as a true street football style.

I have the same amount of schools lined up for next week too.

I think what we are doing can have a real positive effect on helping children live healthy, active lifestyles, enjoy sport and even create the next generation of Micronesian footballers.

I visited a school last week to show the children how to use their new footballs, upon arriving we see a full match is already happening.

This is right on the other side of the island, a small village in what’s mostly jungle, one of the most remote places you are likely to see a ball being kicked.

I ask; how do you know how to play? Who taught you?

They tell us they ‘saw it in the movies, so we copied what they did and the rest we worked out for ourselves’ – these kids are going places.”

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