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NMI U17 leaves mark in AFC tournament

(NMIFA) — A small team made a big mark in a tournament dominated by “giants.”

Despite allowing goals in twin digits to tournament favorite China and pro players-backed Australia, the NMI U17 Boys National Team playing in the AFC U17 Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers earned the respect of soccer fans who watched the games in Shepparton, Australia or on online platforms.

The NMI players first faced the host on Wednesday and lost, 0-23. Nestory Irankunda, a pro playing for Adelaide United, scored five goals, while Mitchell John Glasson, also a pro suiting up for Sydney FC, added four goals. After the lopsided loss to the Joeys, there are people who questioned the NMI’s presence in the high-level Asian Football Confederation competition.

However, after the NMI faced China on Friday and restricted the Asian powerhouse to four goals in the first half before eventually losing at 0-11, the Teen Ayuyus got more believers than doubters.

“Anyone who attended (I was there) this game [versus China] left with nothing but respect for the NMI players. They were outsized, outmuscled, like much younger, playing in awful conditions [cold to freezing temperature] and not once did they give up or back down despite the scoreline,” read one of the online comments at The Football Sack, a website covering soccer leagues across Australia.

“I thought China found it quite difficult to break down NMI. They have as the rights as any within the World Game,” read another online comment.

The NMI left an even better impression in the tournament and in Australia after Northern Mariana Islands Football Association technical director and national head coach Michiteru Mita spoke at the press conference and shared the team’s story and what’s behind their participation in AFC events.

“I know we are very small and I saw all the Facebook comments saying we shouldn’t be here. The boys all saw that,” Mita was quoted as saying in the story that appeared both in online soccer sites as well as in local media in Australia.

“These tournaments are very important for us. We know we are small and young, but we try to develop our football because we use football to develop our community. Young people need something to dream about and to be a national team player is one of the dreams of island people. But something needs to motivate them so that’s why this international tournament is a very important part of being able to motivate and to give the dream to our players,” added Mita, who could not fight back his tears when answering questions from reporters at the press conference.

The Sunday Morning Herald took note of Mita’s statement at the press conference and how the NMI played better against China, holding down its opponents in the first 12 minutes of play. Writer Vince Rugari then wrapped up the newspaper article with this “The Northern Mariana Islands face Cambodia on Sunday night in their final match of the qualifiers, and will be hopeful, at least, of scoring their first goal. If nothing else, the ultimate underdogs have won a new legion of fans simply by turning up and having a go.”

‘More than a game’

More positive feedback greeted the NMI U17, including comments that says their participation in the AFC tournament is “more than a game.”

Goalkeeper Vicente Reyes, who was put on spotlight as journalists noticed him in tears after he was subbed out midway through their match against Australia, said the competition in Australia or any other event they joined in is indeed more than a game.

“It’s about giving our all and fighting to make everyone back home proud. This is about getting a chance to represent our islands and having the opportunity to experience and challenge teams with professional players and seeing the different intensity and styles of play. All these, win or lose and with good or bad comments after each match, will just make us better and motivate us to stay in the program and inspire others to play the sport and have the opportunity to play in college, and dream of one day representing the NMI,” said Reyes, whose better game against China drew praise not only from the team but as well as the spectators of the match.

Published by Marianas Variety - Oct 10, 2022


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