Guam's rise in Asia is a lesson to Singapore about what is possible

Before Guam's stunning 2-2 draw at the home of four-time Suzuki Cup champions Singapore, there were a few remarks made in the city nation that the Pacific Islands were not the kind of opponents that should be invited to test the Lions.

The theory was that Guam were just not good enough to give the kind of football workout that was needed. On one hand, it is an understandable viewpoint -- Guam have never been anything more than Asian minnows, fodder for mid-ranking AFC nations. On the other, it betrayed an ignorance of what has been happening in this nation of 170,000. So the impressive result on Tuesday evening in the Jalan Besar Stadium was only a shock to Singaporeans who weren't aware of Guam's rise in recent years.

Guam's journey from minnows status is a lesson in what can be achieved when federation, coaching staff, players and even media and fans share a vision and work towards it. Once that vision was to get Guam as far up FIFA's rankings as possible. Yet, such ambitions are often the preserve of teams who never play tournaments, rarely engage in meaningful friendlies and have no alternative when trying to measure progress. And this is what coach Gary White wants to change. If he and his players continue to be disappointed by being held to a draw away to Singapore, more and better games will come.

"This is the starting point and first you have to show that you are competitive," White told ESPN FC. "When I first came to Guam, I said to the president that I wanted us to play Singapore; at the time they were AFF champions. He said that we wouldn't get a game. But we have done the work. When we used to play Hong Kong, they thrashed us double figures. We have played them three times recently in their backyard and the games have all been close."

The rise of this nation up the FIFA rankings from below 200 in 2008 to a current standing of 167 -- with a recent peak of 161 -- has been relatively well-documented. White, just 40 and appointed in 2012, has brought in a number of players from the lower leagues of the United States. He has helped to change the old way of thinking that sought to avoid thrashings to a new mindset that seeks challenges and aims to win. With the Guam FA using money from FIFA to develop facilities and dreams, the Southampton native has helped professionalise the whole setup but acknowledges that it is a team effort.

"The first thing is you need good people. When you get that, and they are specialists in what they do and they are passionate about success, then you start. I have great support from the FA president Richard Lei, he is constantly backing us. I've worked in other countries and never got the support I have here. It's a huge part of the success."

That success for Guam is very welcome in the northern Pacific but could end up costing the national team their coach. As the Matao improve, the waves made could carry White, a graduate of the English FA's Elite coaching program, away to the Asian mainland. Suggestions of a job in Southeast Asia brings the response, "I am a very driven person, why not?"

Guam can only go so far. But it is far from easy to rise up through the rankings when arranging meaningful friendlies is tough and, in the past, even qualification for the Asian Cup has been barred. It makes every game a big one.

"We are getting stronger as we play more and we are always looking to improve. Don't forget, Singapore played in Thailand and then at home but we had to bring our players from the United States. They are jet-lagged and playing in totally different conditions. It was not our best performance; we can play better."

As Guam improve, FIFA rankings come to mean less and tournaments more, although the recent improvement in the standings means that Guam sat out the first round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.

The latter is the big prize. The expansion of the continental tournament from 16 to 24 teams in 2019 offers a glint of hope. "Appearing at that tournament depends on the draw, I hope it will give us an opportunity. Ultimately though," said White, "we welcome and challenge and we don't fear anyone."

And they should not. Singapore are the kind of team who will be targeting a spot in UAE four years from now. For Guam to come away from the Lion City feeling that they should have more than a 2-2 draw shows how far the team have come. "The boys are in the dressing room devastated that we didn't win. It feels like we've lost but when we heard over the stadium tannoy that the announcer was telling fans to congratulate Singapore for twice coming back to get a draw then we knew we had done OK."

John Duerden is ESPN's Asia football correspondent who also works for BBC Radio, The Guardian and World Soccer. He writes for The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Daily Telegraph, One World Sports and various Asia media.