(Reuters) - Ahead of what has been described as the biggest match in their history, the President of the Guam Football Association (GFA) says his team's overnight success has been a decade in the making.
With back-to-back wins to open their World Cup qualification campaign, the tiny Pacific island nation sits perched at the top of Asia's Group D, five points clear of the side they will meet on Thursday, Iran.
The last time the two nations met, in the first round of qualification for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, Guam were trounced 19-0.
"We were humiliated, mocked, people would laugh at us in the stands as every goal went in and as each one did it was like someone put a knife into my heart," the President of the GFA, Richard Lai told reporters in Japan, where the team has been training.
Fifteen years since that humiliation, Guam head to Tehran optimistic of causing an upset in the intimidating Azadi Stadium – a venue whose 85,000 capacity is almost half of Guam’s total population.
"When we played our first two matches we set the target of being on top of the group and when I said that, people laughed at me," said Guam head coach Gary White, who steered his side to a 1-0 win over Turkmenistan and a 2-1 victory over India in June.
"Well, look at us now, if any team takes us too lightly they will trip up, we have genuine belief amongst all the playing group and backroom staff that we can do something special.”
In a United States territory with no sports ministry, the GFA receives only minimal government funding, but was rewarded with some much-needed sponsorship from the local tourism authority following the two wins in June.
The team now has a sports scientist and trains at a state-of-the-art facility in Osaka, thanks to the assistance of the Japan Football Association (JFA), who have been long-time backers of Guam.
JFA vice-president Kozo Tashima said the blossoming relationship between the two countries was built on equality, with J-League clubs going to Guam to train.
Lai said the relationship was benefitting both countries.
"When we first started this project jointly with the JFA, we were like a baby just starting to crawl, but we had several Japanese coaches come to Guam and they helped to develop a ten-year plan where we focused on youth," he said.
"Those players are now in the senior team and here we are, not the so-called fairy tale, but rather a great example of how to positively develop in smaller regions."
Editing by Julian Linden