Players entered the pitch wearing basketball shorts and shoes. They unloaded wayward kicks and passes. Some come to practices on time, others don’t.
These were the scenarios that coaches Luam Khen Koo and Taketomo Suzuki remembered when they first started working with the CNMI’s female players. Having coached high-level teams in Hong Kong, both Koo and Suzuki were surprised at what greeted them when they set foot on the pitch.
“To be honest, the girls were not playing football. They were just kicking and chasing the ball with no direction in mind,” said Suzuki, who joined Koo and CNMI Women’s National Team assistant coach Angie Ito on Episode 7 of Footcast with Norman last Saturday.
“My first impression of the team was they don’t know much about football. Some come just to have fun,” added Koo, the 1972 Olympic Games player and former Hong Kong national team coach.
Face with a challenging situation, instead of turning their backs on the team, Suzuki and Koo decided to stay and along with the support of the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association and assistance from Ito, they turned things around for the CNMI’s female players.
When asked what made them stick with the team, Koo said he was inspired by NMIFA president Jerry Tan and Chelsea FC Soccer School Hong Kong head Raymond Tan.
“They have so much love for soccer and believe that these kids have potential. They put their heart into the program, so for me, I know I can help them if I will just spend more time teaching the players about soccer. I know they will improve,” said Koo, who was the technical director of Chelsea FC Soccer School Hong Kong and came out of coaching retirement to go to Saipan and handle the CNMI Women’s National Team.
After the “surprise” first meeting with the islands’ female players, Koo and company indeed managed to develop the national team as seen in their performances in various off-island competitions and the number of players showing up and joining the program. Koo coached the squad that earned a historic 7-0 win over Macau in the Preliminary Round 1 of the 2015 EAFF East Asian Cup at the Guam Football Association Training Center and also piloted the team to back-to-back triumphs in the Marianas Cup (2018 and 2019).
Suzuki, who is now in the Philippines working on another football program under Chelsea FC Soccer School Hong Kong, said he saw some of the players she met on Saipan when they came to the Philippines for a training camp.
“Again, I was surprised, but it’s a different kind of surprise. In fact, I was impressed with how much they’ve improved. I can now say that they are really playing soccer. They move the ball around well and understand the game and how the coach’s system works. I am very happy to see them and see the women’s program heading into the right direction,” Suzuki said.
Along the CNMI Women’s National Team’s journey, there’s Ito, who is the backbone of the squad and does a dual job—assistant coach and manager. Actually, more than two roles, as she also takes care of the group’s laundry, meals, and documents during trainings and tournament. She managed to embrace these roles, which also include being a “comforter” to young players who are missing their families during off-island trips, despite having no idea with the sport/program when she first started playing in 2010.
What made her stay despite these challenges?
“It’s the girls who want to go off-island and experience what it’s like to play in high-level tournaments and learn a lot of things, not just about football, from the people and places they meet and visit,” Ito said.
The respected coach/manager added that like Suzuki and Koo, she is committed to the program to provide players more opportunities, either to represent the CNMI in off-island tournaments or further their education and compete in collegiate level.
“We are here to give them the tools and it’s up to them to use these tools and take the opportunities that come their way so they can reach their potential and realize their goals,” Ito said.