Do you know the Northern Mariana Islands international team? The commonwealth is composed of 14 islands including famous beach resorts Saipan and Rota. In 2005, the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association was established. Their international team has been competing in the "EAFF East Asian Cup" since its third year.
The Northern Mariana Islands international team have a deep connection to Japan. As part of international exchange and support activities by the Japan Football Association, Japanese coaches have been leading the team since 2009.
"While American sports flourish there, football is the most popular sport among U-12 children. Schools in Saipan, where the head office of the football association is located, always have football games on weekends."
So says Kiyoshi Sekiguhi, who had been in charge of coaching as well as the chairman of the technical committee of the Northern Mariana Islands international team from March 2010 until January 2012. He engaged himself in the improvement and development of every category of men's and women's football.
"While there exists no professional football league, seven clubs have age categories from U-6 up to senior. Each category has its league in the commonwealth, where around 1,000 people play football. Information on European football can be obtained through TV or the Internet, so many children admire Barcelona and Messi. However, they have no professional league nor any players produced in Saipan have joined Major League Soccer clubs or become U.S. international players yet. That might make it hard for children to dream of "becoming a professional football player."
What children in the commonwealth adore are Japan and Korea, the leading football nations in the East Asian Football Federation.
Sekiguchi looks back with a bitter smile on heartwarming scenes which he saw when the Northern Mariana Islands attended the "AFC U-14 Festival" this April.
"After the Northern Mariana Islands team played against the U-14 Japan select team, some members asked Japanese players for autographs. Japan and Korea were by far the best teams, so maybe the Northern Mariana Islands youngsters saw them as not so much opponents but objects of admiration."
The senior Northern Mariana Islands international team participated in the "first qualifying round of the EAFF East Asian Cup 2013" held in July. They played against Guam and Macau in a round robin format aiming to be the top team and progress to the second qualification round.
For the first match on 18 July, the Northern Mariana Islands met Guam. According to Sekiguchi, "the commonwealth see Guam as a nearby big wall to overcome and they are conscious of each other." After losing this game 1-3, the Northern Mariana Islands also succumbed 1-5 to Macau. It was Guam that went through the first qualifying round.
Their next goal is to join the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and with that, to become a member of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Sekiguchi explains:
"No clearly-stated standards for joining the AFC seem to exist, but wins in international competition should be a significant appeal. Another point will be whether the organization in the form of a football association adequately operates. We are now making efforts in various areas, setting the goal of joining the AFC in 2013."