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In Timor-Leste: Reborn Island Nation Loves its Soccer, er, Football

May 21, 2008

You might ask why Timor-Leste, at the very bottom of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association’s (FIFA) rankings at 202 of all countries, is likely to be a future talent factory for football. I see three promising factors.

First, Timorese possess an inexhaustible fighting spirit. Not 10 years ago, during the Indonesian occupation, Timor-Leste’s isolation was almost complete. Possessing a radio was a punishable crime; speaking a foreign language other than Indonesian led to detention and imprisonment. An estimated 180,000 Timorese were killed during the occupation. The Indonesian withdrawal left over 80 percent of Timor- Leste’s infrastructure destroyed. Now it’s rising from the ashes.

In the capital city, Dili, neighbors crowd around TV sets at 3 a.m., waiting for the kickoff of a Champions League game played in Europe, wearing the jerseys of favorite teams, cheering on English and German players. Last year Timor-Leste played Hong Kong in their first World Cup-qualifying match.

Second, football gives Timorese a national identity. Saying football is Timor’s national sport is an understatement. You can see it played anywhere, anytime ” in the hot midday sun and in the downpour of tropical showers, in the mist-covered mountains, on the white sand beaches. Though most games are battled out on rough gravel or rutted fields with old sneakers and bare feet, the Timorese play is intelligent, tightly controlled and built from a natural understanding of defense. If the Timorese find their spiritual salvation in the Catholic Church, they find their physical salvation in football.

Third, football gives Timorese global access. Today Timor-Leste’s coaches attend trainings in countries like Brazil and Portugal. Timorese players find their way onto international clubs. FIFA now recognizes Timor-Leste, paving the way for entry into World Cup and regional tournaments. Players like Alfredo Esteves, a Portugal-born Timorese, once a Minnesota Thunder (of the United Soccer Leagues) defender, have made building these international bridges a priority. Esteves recently enlisted in an Australian club team to be closer to Timor-Leste. All of these international linkages point to a new age for football in the island country. Although Timor-Leste is likely to produce talent for the international market, the country’s own ascension in FIFA rankings is less than inevitable. The country faces three tsunami-size obstacles for retaining its best players:

“The biggest challenge football faces in Timor is security,” says Nene Almeida, a Timorese citizen now studying at the University of Hawaii. Football is becoming accepted by international development agencies as a way to improve relationships in fractured societies. However, without security guarantees, matches can break down into fist-fighting or worse. In Timor-Leste, the national police lack resources, training and organization to provide such security.

In late 2006 a disagreement broke out among rival fans, which ended in an exchange of arrows. The international police stepped in and dispersed the crowd with rubber bullets. Footballers wouldn’t miss a dribble in choosing to play in an ultrasecure Singapore over a UN-Peace kept Timor. While stability is returning to Timor-Leste, the recent shooting of President Ramos-Horta and an attempt on Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s life is an evocative reminder that security can falter at pivotal times.

The second obstacle is investment. Timor- Leste plays all of its international qualifiers in Indonesia because its national stadium does not meet international standards. Although there are over 100 club teams nationwide, players often can’t afford to play away games, and their local fields are in disrepair. There are few private enterprises that could afford such sponsorship. The government is hard pressed to meet other development priorities. Timor-Leste ranks 150th out of 177 of the world’s least-developed countries on the Human Development Index. Almost 30 percent of the population does not have access to education. For Timorese footballers, playing abroad is an opportunity as much for personal development as it is for finding the resources to take care of a family.

The third obstacle is organization. The Football Federation of Timor-Leste (FFTL) has been criticized for not doing enough to promote the sport locally. While it is true that there is not yet a national league, though it would not require much of the FFTL, one must consider that 10 years ago the formation of any organization (such as a team), formal or informal, was severely punished. Additional resources certainly could improve the FFTL’s organizational capacity. However throwing money at the organization is unlikely to curb bad practices, which undoubtedly makes playing abroad more appealing. Critics claim a major obstacle for a strong national team is nepotism within the FFTL-run selection process. “We can say that half the players on the national team deserve to be there. The other half, we don’t know why they are there,” says one recreational player in Dili. Timor-Leste’s star players may be setting their sites on playing abroad for the time being, but football in Timor is enjoying its new beginnings. The world is likely to hear more from this small island nation for no other reason than its passion for the sport. As lanky 14-year-old player Joao Ximenes summed it up, “People talk about football that it’s good for our education, that it will even bring peace to Timor, but I play because I love the game.” A rising Timor-Leste football talent? You read about him here first.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Timor-Leste. This piece is scheduled to appear in the Spring/Summer 2008 edition of the Ultimate Sports Guide. He can be reached at severett@asiafound.org.

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