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I'm a huge fan of both football and reading, so a book about football is always likely to appeal to me as the best way of combining the two. Recently, I've read books set at the pinnacle of the game in "Life with Sir Alex: A Fan's Story of Ferguson's 25 Years at Manchester United" by Will Tidey and about one man's struggle to bring football to a foreign land in "Bamboo Goalposts" by Rowan Simons. ''Up Pohnpei'' is firmly in the latter category, treading very similar ground to Simons' book.
Frustrated at England needing Andorra to pull off an unlikely victory to achieve qualification for Euro 2008, Paul Watson and his friend Matt Conrad set about finding a national football team so bad that even they could win an international cap for them. Finding no encouragement in the official FIFA rankings, they stumble across the Micronesian island of Pohnpei and a description of them as the weakest football team in the world. So weak are they, in fact, that they were never known to have recorded a victory. Ever.
Even before they reach Pohnpei, Micronesia's residency laws look set to make their dream highly unlikely. But a chance meeting with a Pohnpeian shows that they don't have a national football coach and they could become the youngest national team coaches in the world instead. So Paul and Matt set about creating a team, but find they have to battle against the weather, the lack of basic facilities, the lack of a league from which to select their players, the high obesity rate and an almost national addiction to betel nut. Oh, and toads.
There is much to love about ''Up Pohnpei''. What particularly caught my eye is that Paul and Matt are just average guys. Admittedly, few of us can call upon a stand-up comedian brother to headline a fundraiser, but so often these books are written by people we could never hope to be. This is different, as what they do to raise funds and obtain equipment are the kinds of things that any of us could attempt. That said, the average person probably wouldn't take on such an endeavour in the first place.
What I most loved was that, despite the whole idea appearing to start as the result of a joke, Watson genuinely came to care about his team. His devotion to making a success of the attempt is clear and his upset when things go wrong and his frustration with people and things that stand in his way or generally prove more difficult than anticipated come across perfectly. Watson's emotional honesty is fully on display here and the book is all the better for it, as in his caring, the reader is drawn in and made to care themselves.
I was a little disappointed in how one-dimensional the book was. In "Bamboo Goalposts" by Rowan Simons, there was a lot about how the author struggled to fit into an entirely alien culture. Whilst that occasionally featured here, it was more in terms of how these cultural difficulties affected Watson's ability to communicate with his team and get the most from them, rather than how it affected his life on Pohnpei as a whole. Admittedly, it's not exactly a tourist hotspot and there are few places to visit, but the narrow focus made it feel as if he did nothing except football related activities.
I also found the ending to be a letdown. The end of Watson's involvement was the end of the book and it finished rather abruptly. I closed the book with the feeling that I'd been left hanging and there was more left to be told. Possibly these are recent events and there has been little time for further progress since Watson left, but I felt there was more to be told and that the story had been cut off partway.
Despite the narrowness of focus, this is a decent read. That a couple of average guys could come up with such a foolish idea but then work so hard towards that aim was inspiring. Seeing it change the author as well as the subject made for a more emotional experience than I expected. The limited focus makes it less well rounded than it could have been and may limit the readership, but for those football fans prepared to step out of the comfort zone around their favourite team, this is a well written book about football at a completely different level and reading it proves to be as rewarding an experience as watching your team win. Slightly less rewarding is the price, as the cheapest I have seen it available for is £5.80 from the Amazon marketplace; a price which doesn't include postage. Both Amazon and Play are offering copies from £6.349 including postage. This is better value, but still a little more than I'd aim to pay, but I suspect such a minority interest book may not be at your local library, so waiting until it comes down in price would be advised, as would reading it when it does.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published in my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk