Coming to terms with the limitations of our own sporting achievement is one of the hardest things many of us have to do in life. A couple of years ago, after one too many serious injuries, I realised that I would never again line up on the rugby pitch waiting for the referee to blow his whistle. For others it can involve failing to make it as a professional sportsman or woman, or even missing out on making the cut for a team at school. At whatever level, these things matter.
For Paul Watson, coming to terms with these limitations did not mean giving in. His desire to play international soccer, despite not having the requisite talent, let him to a more creative solution: if he wasn’t good enough to play for England, what about somewhere where the standards were perhaps a bit lower? His hopes finally settled on a tiny Micronesian island called Pohnpei, far far out in the Pacific Ocean. When it turned out that playing for their international team was more complicated than he had envisaged, he rejigged his plans and resolved to become their manager. What could possibly go wrong?
Up Pohnpei (Profile Books, 2012) is the remarkable story of the eighteen months that Paul spent, not just coaching Pohnpei’s national football team, but actually creating that team in the first place. It is a story with much to say about how sports are governed and the impoverished lower reaches of a sport otherwise seemingly awash with cash. It is also a snapshot of how the Micronesian islanders live and the motivational powers that taking part in football games had on the members of the Pohnpei team. Although Paul never managed to win his international football cap, it’s also a reminder why we all love playing and watching sport – at whatever level.