The Marshall Islands have no soccer league and a population of roughly 60,000 people spread across five islands and 30 atolls. But they're hard at work to bring the sport, and the global audience, home. Courtesy of Slovem Jacob/Marshall Islands Soccer Federation
The motivation behind the mission to bring football to the Marshall Islands and obtain FIFA recognition all comes back to the love between a father and son. The islands in the central Pacific Ocean represent the last United Nations-recognised country in the world without a national football team. But Shem Livai, a Marshallese businessman who lives on the capital island of Majuro, is leading a group of footballing pioneers who want that to change.
Livai's son, Carter, took to football. He found it an easy sport to pick up, just kicking a ball around with his friends on one of Majuro's picturesque beaches. Majuro is the capital of the five islands and 30 coral atolls that make up the Marshall Islands, and they played in the backyards where the limits are drawn by the rising ocean levels. But when his son turned 11, he and his friends stopped playing. There was no established league, no pathway and nothing in place to encourage them to keep going.
The islands have a strong U.S. influence given its history over the past century, and their footballing interest slipped away to the more established longstanding passion there for basketball, baseball or American football. Shem Livai saw an opportunity and in 2020, he started the Marshall Islands Soccer Federation (MISF).
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"I saw there were no facilities, no leagues and looking at the kids and how much they loved the sport, I knew I had to do something about it," Livai told ESPN. Last December, they appointed their first technical director: U.K.-based Lloyd Owers. They've also brought on a head of marketing and a press director and on March 17, they announced a kit deal with PlayerLayer, who make Forest Green Rovers apparel.
But this mission has a wider purpose. Though Owers admits there's a bit of the "Cool Runnings" vibe to this story, there's a more urgent purpose behind this group's desire to get the Marshall Islands' football team onto the world stage. They want to use its platform to raise awareness over climate change: based on current projections, 40% of Majuro -- a part of the world already battered by nuclear weapons testing -- will be underwater by 2030.
Sport has often been called a force for good and a vessel to change the world. With the future of their nation at stake, the Marshallese football dreamers are putting that theory to the test.
Owers took the job without having visited the Islands. He has never met his boss, Livai, face to face; their communication is over screens and phones. But despite the geographical and logistical challenges, they're making progress.
Owers got the job after Livai started reading his website. There Owers did a weekly Q&A focusing on more obscure footballing nations, while passing on his knowledge from his university education in performance coaching and time in charge of Oxford City Under-23s as manager, as well as his various jobs with Oxford United, Mansfield Town and Colchester United, alongside consultancy roles with Canada, the U.S. and Sweden. It was an article he wrote about Samoa that caught Livai's eye.
"We ended up talking quite a lot," Owers told ESPN. "It was a lot of voice notes over WhatsApp and waking up to messages because of the time difference, so then he asked me to create a long-term plan based on my own style and how it would potentially match up with the MISF. Next thing I knew I was given the role as technical director, so we are literally building everything from nothing."
Before he took the role, Owers had to google exactly where the Marshall Islands are.
Owers has never visited the Marshall Islands, but he signed up for their project based on the long-term vision and the excitement of building something from nothing. Courtesy of Lloyd Owers
The group of islands are halfway between Australia and Hawai'i in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, with a population of 60,000. It was at the epicentre of the battle for the Pacific during World War II, with the group of islands originally under Japanese control from the early 20th century until the U.S. took control in 1944. The Islands were used by the U.S. as the Pacific Proving Grounds for nuclear weapons tests from 1946 to 1958 -- the fallout and lingering radiation still have a big impact on daily life and health.
The Islands established their own constitution in 1979 to break away from U.S. jurisdiction, but Kwajalein -- the second-most-populated island -- still houses a U.S. Army base. The Marshall Islands' compact of free association with the U.S. sees the U.S. provide defence, financial aid and access to various services in exchange for their military presence on Kwajalein. It has been a U.N. member since 1991, and the islands' largest exports are tuna and coconut oil.
That U.S. influence is why traditional American sports are dominant there. But space is at a premium: Majuro's population of 30,000 fits into a land area of just under 10 kilometres with 97.8% of the islands' territory water. Given it would take Owers roughly 40 hours to travel from his home in Oxford to the Marshall Islands, it's hardly a straightforward commute.
He remembers those early conversations with his wife when the MISF approached him. "To be fair, she said, do it because it could be big and works with how I see projects, while I can also see some of the world. There was a little bit of winning over, but equally, it will hopefully be a big, important project.
"I have my own goals. I'd love to work for a FIFA-recognised nation, and hopefully that's the Marshall Islands."
Owers is desperate to see the place himself, and see if what he has imagined is realistic. "I've been picturing it, I've been planning it," he said. "I've been looking at the beaches, the hotels and trying to work it all out. I can visualise it, too, from looking at Google Maps -- and you see little patches of land, or bits of grass where you wonder if there's space to play football there. But I can imagine you'd get there and it's the size of a box room. So it'll be far easier once I'm out there."
While Marshallese natives like Shem Livai are trying to create the structure for a league and national team, there are increasing numbers of pick-up games on Majuro, the Marshall Islands' largest island. Courtesy of Slovem Jacob/Marshall Islands Soccer Federation
Despite this project being years in the making and it taking leaps forward, Livai is not charging ahead. "We don't want to rush this," Livai told ESPN. "It's a blessing to have everyone working so well in the team, but we want to tick the boxes and make sure our foundations are strong."
The first step of the plan is to integrate the sport more into everyday life and since Owers' appointment was announced, the MISF has noticed an increase in media attention. Owers did national media in the U.K. as interest peaked in the project, which led to an influx of offers of donations of kit and balls. "Getting those donations to the Marshall Islands is a logistical nightmare. But when I eventually go over there, I hope to bring them with me. At the moment we're still creating things, like looking at introducing football into the national curriculum and then educating the teachers and training coaches. I can do that from here. We're also trying to do as much fundraising as possible."
"I've had so many emails, calls from parents asking about their kids and whether they can get involved," Livai said. Livai also hopes to get a local six-team league up and running, featuring a mixture of college students and adults, with invites going out shortly to the local villages.
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But while the noise around football grows, the sporting focus of the Marshall Islands is firmly on the 2023 Micronesian Games, set to be held on Majuro in July 2023. It's going to be the biggest-ever sporting event held in that part of the world: the likes of Guam, Palau, the Northern Mariana Islands, Pohnpei, Yap, Nauru and Chuuk will all travel to Majuro to compete for local bragging rights in a mini Olympic Games. It'll be the first major event held at the new 2,000-capacity Majuro Track and Field Stadium. The MISF did look optimistically at including football in the Games, but the sheer logistics meant it had come just too soon, with all the hotels already booked.
Once the Micronesian Games are over, the MISF and the Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee will turn attention to football. The area already has a proud sporting history, having featured at the past four summer Olympic Games across track and field, taekwondo, swimming and weightlifting.
Owers has been looking for players. Once news of appointment started circulating on Twitter, he was contacted by three players -- including one college prospect in the U.S. -- with Marshallese ancestry. But without a national team or any structured league, it's tough to track down potential prospects.
"I originally wanted us to get a team together by the back end of this year, but I don't think that'll happen now," Owers said. "I think realistically, if we can look at like spring next year as a first opportunity to really play competitively, that'd be great.
"There are a lot of Marshallese people in the U.S., so we're currently trying to connect with people there to raise awareness to the program, the project, and get people playing it. Because long term, you know, it might be that we have a pool of players that are U.S.-based that come together, then a pool of players that come together in the Marshall Islands. We can merge the two, almost like in the documentary "Next Goal Wins" -- that's how America Samoa did it."
The Marshall Islands are known for the fact that in the 1950s, various atolls were used as nuclear testing sites by the United States in the 1950s. Some, like Bikini Atoll, remain uninhabitable following Operation Redwing. CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
The computer game Football Manager will be an ally in this process. Football Manager sees desktop coaches trying their hand at guiding their chosen teams to glory in the hugely popular management simulation game. But it also houses a vast database of more than 400,000 active players and staff.
"We are currently exploring the possibility of adding the Marshall Islands to the Football Manager series as a recognised nationality," Andrew Sinclair, from Football Manager creators Sports Interactive, told ESPN. "We already have other non-FIFA-affiliated nations in the database, so there is a precedent for adding one like the Marshall Islands, especially as it's a sovereign nation.
"It's still very much a work in progress: we have no real idea how many players we may have, or have knowledge on, that would have the Marshallese nationality added once we have the option to do so. Anything we can do to help the Marshall Islands put right the fact they're the only sovereign nation in the world that's got no record of a national football match, we will do our best to do!"
The logistical steps of being recognised by FIFA eligible to play in World Cup qualifiers starts with becoming a member of the local confederation. To do this they'll need to be voted in after presenting their plans and aims -- this includes proving they have suitable hotels, training facilities and infrastructure. (There's no guarantee it will work: Tuvalu was granted only "associate member" status of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and isn't yet part of FIFA because of the lack of hotels and facilities.) Key to the MISF's hopes is that new stadium on Majuro, which includes an indoor Futsal pitch.
The likely home for the MISF is in the OFC, rather than the Asia Football Confederation (AFC) to which Australia belongs, or CONCACAF. "We need to get everything in place before we approach them," Owers said.
If they get voted in to a confederation, attention eventually will turn to FIFA. It's understood that the Marshall Islands would qualify given it is a sovereign nation recognised by the international community, but first it needs to become part of the OFC before looking at FIFA membership.
"[Livai] wants us to be FIFA members, he wants to be part of World Cup qualifiers, he has big aims," Owers says. "But because we don't yet have a membership to the OFC, we don't have funding. So it all comes down to fundraising and sponsorship. We posted a GoFundMe page soon after my appointment, which did well at the start, but we still need to raise awareness over the project and the country and the long-term aims of what we're trying to achieve."
The biggest stress for the Marshallese people is climate change, something they hope soccer can help shine the light on. There are genuine concerns that by 2030, some 40% of the nation's land mass -- including the likes of Ebeye Island, which is part of the second-most populous land mass in the nation -- might be underwater. Courtesy of Slovem Jacob/Marshall Islands Soccer Federation
Central to this project is making the world aware of the impact climate change is having on the Islands. "Climate change is a daily thing here in the Marshall Islands," Livai said. "We see it daily, and if we get visitors and fans of our football team here, too, they can see what's going on."
The projections are bleak. If global temperatures continue to rise at the rate they are presently, parts of the Marshall Islands will be submerged by 2030, with fears that 40% of the buildings on Majuro could be lost to rising sea levels. Some of the islands, like Ellekan, are already uninhabitable. The structure of the new stadium on Majuro doubles as sea walls to help protect the island from the rising sea levels, as well as flooding that occurs during the annual King Tides.
"The ocean is encroaching on our backyards and eroding our land," Livai said. "Trees are falling into the ocean because of the rising levels. Hopefully when we're playing football, people will realise in the small islands that climate change is happening as close to home as in our own backyards."
Make no mistake: despite their FIFA aims, this is a project stretching beyond football. And apart from the sheer nature of the goals, the challenge and the potential on-field rewards of seeing the Marshall Islands finally having a FIFA-recognised football team, that larger purpose is what attracted Owers.
"It's about being part of something bigger," Owers said. "It's around the green movement and raising awareness over the way things are going if we continue as we are. I hope through doing this we can get help there, but also to hopefully help secure the long-term future for Marshallese people in their home."
There's a long way to go, but they're all focusing on that dream of seeing a team of Marshallese players lining up to represent that small corner of the Pacific Ocean. "You're providing opportunities to Marshallese citizens to have an opportunity to play a different sport and represent their nation in a different capacity," Owers said. "I know it has a bit of a 'Cool Runnings' feel to it, because you are providing opportunities for people to wear the nation's flag in a sport they didn't think would happen.
"It's such a tiny nation, but football can help put it on the map."