There is an awful amount of money in the English Premier League, money that cannot be comprehended. Even when compared to other major leagues (Spanish, German, Italian), the financial muscle of the English league is staggering. Given this, there is no real surprise that teams in less developed non-European countries struggle to fund their teams, stadiums, facilities, kit and transport, to name just a few of the problems. In light of this, The Gryphon has spoken to former Leeds University alumni Paul Watson about his experiences as a coach (and now an owner) of such countries and teams, as well as how he uses football as a way to bring about social change, and some of his experiences throughout his career.
You studied Italian at Leeds. What do you remember from your time at Leeds University?
It feels like a long time ago now! I definitely still have really good memories of my Erasmus year in Verona and I met a lot of amazing people at Leeds – I’m still good friends with some of them now.
You then became a journalist for Channel 4 on Italian football, what advice would you give to budding journalists?
The football journalism industry is changing fast and, if anything, getting much harder because there’s so much free content out there and sites are struggling to make money so jobs are tough to find. I would advise journalists to find a topic they are passionate about and start getting their work out there, even if they have to work for free quite a lot to start with. It also doesn’t hurt to have a niche. For example, there are always thousands writing about the Premier League, so I had an easier time because there weren’t as many journalists in the UK who spoke Italian.
You – and Matt Conrad – initially attempted to become international footballers, but this did not materialise. Instead, you became a coach of the international team Pohnpei in Micronesia. What motivated you to pursue this pathway?
The playing idea was in a way somewhat of a joke, a bit of a drunken idea that gets cooked up between mates (although we were actually sober at the time), but when we had the chance to meet the man who’d run football in Pohnpei for a decade he said that there was no team but a desperate need for organisation and coaching. As soon as we heard this, the project became more serious and worthwhile – we were clearly under qualified but the idea of re-starting a whole national football programme from the ground up was something I couldn’t refuse.
You later wrote a book about this experience, called Up Pohnpei. The Big Issue described it as a ‘refreshing counterpoint to the commercial excesses of the English Premier’. Would you say there is far too much money in the English game?
There’s definitely too much money in the professional game, but things can’t go back now. I think a lot of people are gravitating towards local non-league teams or lower league teams to find a type of football that they can still relate to. In my opinion what’s so valuable about football is how teams relate to their communities, how they create an identity and bring people together – as soon as you have a group of teams owned by oligarchs whose players would move overnight if they were offered more money, you’ve lost the heart of the game.
In a review of your book, Amazon wrote that ‘[Pohnpei has] a population whose obesity rate is 90 percent and [their] toad-infested facilities [are] in one of the world’s wettest climates’. What were the hardest challenges of this adventure
The weather was certainly a tough challenge. More or less every day it would rain suddenly, as if the world was ending, which made it hard to play tiki-taka football! There were no indoor football pitches so we just had to deal with it and alter our playing style accordingly! The conditions were always ramshackle – we painted the pitch with house paint for the league games (which washed off) and for the final of the cup the floodlights blew so everyone had to park their cars alongside the field and put the headlights on. There’s not much encouragement for young athletes on the islands so many turn to drugs, like the local narcotic sakau, which acts like an anaesthetic. It was tough to convince people that you could make something of yourself through sport.
What were the most enjoyable aspects of it?
Creating a football system against the odds and the feeling of teamwork between this group of players as we prepared to play our first game on a tour of the neighbouring island of Guam. It was amazing to see players start to believe in themselves. Many of them had quite tough childhoods and football really brought them out of that.
After coaching this national side, you set your own side called Bayangol F.C. What were the principal reasons for this and how did it come about?
I was approached by someone in Mongolia, who had read about the Pohnpei team in the media, who then asked if I wanted to set up a new flagship Mongolian team. The purpose of the team was to make football more accessible for people who hadn’t had these opportunities before and to fight against the corruption that was rampant in the game in Mongolia at the time. It was a challenge that really appealed to me.
You are currently fundraising so that this team has enough money to run for the remainder of the 2016 season. In your fundraising add, you state that “As a club we stand against discrimination and corruption and have tackled both head on”. What, then, do you make of the recent corruption scandal in England, which caused Sam Allardyce to be removed from his post as England manager just 67 days after being appointed?
To be honest it didn’t come as that much of a surprise. I’d say a significant percentage of managers would’ve done what Allardyce did, especially if their advisors gave it the go-ahead, there’s just such a culture of pushing and bending the rules, the greed is incredible. I guess like most industries football is all about who you know and the people at the top usually have good enough connections to get away with more or less anything.
What can be done to combat the homophobic, sexist and racial discrimination, which is still prevalent in football?
It needs to be addressed properly and education at all levels is crucial. Players at all levels need to be accountable for their actions and to develop as players knowing there’s no place for homophobia, racism or sexism in the game. There has been some progress but it was farcical that FIFA decided its Anti-Racism task force had done their job – that’s exactly the kind of attitude that prevents any change. I’d say that one of the biggest dangers at the moment is the feeling that especially racism but also sexism and homophobia is a thing of the past just because it’s not as explicit as it was in the 80s – there’s still a massive problem, for example, the lack of black managers at the higher levels of the game and the absence of any openly gay players.
An awful amount of time and effort of your coaching career has been motivated by your desire to promote football as a way to bring about social change. Do you think football could do more to promote social change, especially in light of the vast amount of money in English football? Does the Premier League have a duty to make this happen?
I think football can do so much more in general to enable positive social change, but the Premier League has its own agendas. However, there are loads of amazing projects that I admire all over the world that are doing truly inspirational things with football and for all the bad there will always be many more good people in the game.
Finally, what does owning Bayangol F.C. mean, both to you and the community that it helps to support?
Bayangol stands for a different way of doing things – trying to act with morality and decency to help empower people through football. It has been a massive battle and remains a huge challenge on many levels, but I’m very proud of the club.
Paul Watson was talking to James Felton.
Photo credit: Sky Sports