Emerging nation

The football team may not have won a game yet but Timor-Leste has a side to be proud of, as Matthew Hall writes

In his own words, Alfredo Esteves lives a different reality to many of us and that’s not just because he’s a defender for Wollongong FC in the New South Wales Premier League, a regional competition in Australia. In 2008, as well as helping Wollongong win the championship, the 32-year-old lined up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Edgar Davids and Raúl in an All-Stars team selected by Luis Figo for a charity. That’s not the amazing part of the story, however.

Esteves is the captain of Timor-Leste’s national team. Last year, Timor-Leste – previously known as East Timor – climbed from last place in FIFA’s official rankings to currently sit 199th out of 208 football-playing nations. History had been made. Timor-Leste has still yet to win a match in its ten-year existence but rocketed up the rankings courtesy of a 2-2 draw against Cambodia in the Asian Football Confederation’s regional AFF Cup. “It was a really big moment for everyone,” Esteves said. “Maybe it’s difficult to understand but, when you are on the field representing your country, every single improvement makes you feel so good. The first game we ever played against the Philippines, we lost by seven goals. The next one we lost 1-0. Everyone was happy losing just 1-0. When we got the draw against Cambodia it was the cherry on the cake. We didn’t think we would get a draw for a long time.”

It’s possible you might struggle to find Timor-Leste on a map. That’s not unusual. North of Australia and east of Indonesia, the former Portuguese colony was occupied by the Indonesians from 1975 to 1999 and finally gained sovereignty in 2002. “Timor is a new country and it doesn’t have infrastructure for anything,” Esteves explained. “But when you travel though the country, soccer is 90 per cent of everything. All the kids love to play. They don’t even need a field they just want to kick the ball around. You see kids everywhere using two rocks to make a goal. They just play for hours.

 “There is a lot of talent there and a lot of passion but there are no fields to play the game. There is no regular league. Sometimes, they organise tournaments for clubs to come together but when the tournament is finished there’s nothing. Sixty per cent of the population is under 25 but Timor has no jobs. The kids just spend the day hanging out doing nothing.”

Esteves is the only professional player in a team that was eliminated early on the road to South Africa, courtesy of an 8-1 loss over two games against Hong Kong. National coach Pedro Almeida is a local celebrity but his fame comes not from being a football coach but as one of the best motorcycle mechanics in Timor’s capital city, Dili. It is difficult for the coach to select a squad for tournaments. When football doesn’t pay, players are too busy providing for their families. Leaving a job for the folly of football, even playing for your country, means there’s no one to go fishing, no one to work, no one to bring home a daily meal. “They can’t stop working – they have families to look after,” Esteves said. “It’s difficult just to focus on soccer. They have to work to support the rest of the family. My team-mates all want a chance to play overseas but it’s not easy to leave Timor and go somewhere else, even to get a trial. They can’t leave their families.”

Esteves hopes to finally lead Timor-Leste to a historic first-ever victory. The country faces many challenges, not least from political polarisation that also spills over into national sports administration. Getting things done in such circumstances can be tough but that elusive first win may unite the nation. “When I played with all those famous players I was representing Timor,” Esteves added. “It’s something to be proud of, to be Timorese and to be on the same field as those guys. Timor is a small country that has never won anything but we are getting closer. It will be a big celebration, maybe even around the world, when we do win a game. They have been suffering for many years with all the problems in the country. That first win will be something that will touch the world. It will be a great moment for everyone. It will be progress.”

From WSC 271 September 2009