At 36, most strikers are slowing down. Don’t count Guam’s most-capped player, record marksman and captain among them.
The Micronesian territory lost 1-0 to Bhutan in the first leg of their fight for a place in the second round of Asian qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, but Jason Cunliffe’s hat-trick and two assists inspired them to a 5-0 victory in the return.
“Many footballers call it a day or think about retirement at this age, but I am not there quite yet,” the striker who is still scoring regularly for Bank of Guam Strykers in the Guam Soccer League told FIFA.com. “I am still very fit and healthy.
“I train hard and strictly with an outstanding programme by James Ralph from Athlete’s Edge. My form is not fading away. Honestly, I am entering my prime.”
Such is Cunliffe’s belief in his longevity that, with 22 goals in 53 caps, he wants to reach the century club.
“I want to reach a century of caps for the national team,” he said firmly. “I want to make further breakthroughs with Guam such as helping our team to the second round in the EAFF Championship and faring better in World Cup qualifying.”
Cunliffe, who shares a birthday with Pele, has two sons, and he’d love to emulate Arnor and Eidur Gudjohnsen, Henrik and Jordan Larsson, and Rivaldo and Rivaldinho in being in the same squad as one of them.
“Zico turns eight in September and Marciano will be ten in October,” Cunliffe said. “I’d love to play at least one match with one of my sons as a team-mate.”
Zico and Marciano were a bit too young to appreciate Cunliffe’s finest achievement. In Russia 2018 qualifying – only Guam’s second World Cup qualifying campaign – and under Gary White they stunned Turkmenistan to sit top of a group also featuring Iran and Oman. Those triumphs sent the nation into raptures.
“Everyone was excited,” Cunliffe recalled. “Within five days we took six points from our opening two matches.
“Having been accustomed to us losing on the international scene for so long, our people were suddenly woken up by the victories. Our performances made them realise that Guam’s football had made a giant stride into the new era.”
It was, of course, their unexpected shocking of India which held greater significance considering that it was a tiny country of less than 170,000 versus the world’s second most populous nation.
“Yes, it was definitely a big victory for us,” Cunliffe said. “It was indeed a David-versus-Goliath scenario, but we demonstrated our nation’s trademark resilience and battled to win. By doing so, we proved that we are doing our best in narrowing the gap between us and the big teams.”
Guam’s good run nevertheless proved short-lived. A goalless draw against Oman and five defeats – albeit three coming by a single goal – put paid to their hopes.
“We were a bit unfortunate not to have taken more points, speaking frankly,” evaluated Cunliffe. “We lost three important games against Turkmenistan, Oman and India by the identical 1-0 scoreline. We proved we were able to compete against them and only Iran were dominant against us.
“But we learned a lot by rubbing shoulders with these teams. We gained precious international experience which can help our youngsters. In two decades, when we look back, the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign will be a huge catalyst in our development.”
Guam have taken zero points from a possible 15 in the second round of Asian qualifying for Qatar 2022, effectively ending their chances.
“We are disappointed,” Cunliffe said. “This team is much younger and more inexperienced than the squad five years ago.
“We clearly still have a lot of work to do. We will always be playing catch-up to the big teams, but I believe I will see Guam beat them in my lifetime.”
Cunliffe was recently appointed Guam U-17 coach, tasked with nurturing the next generation, but he has sent a warning to those he is tutoring.
“I will play for Guam as long as I am healthy and able to earn my place in the team,” he said. “I’ve told the youngsters that they have to take it if they want my place.
“With the new coaching job, I am looking forward to giving back to the local football community. But meantime, I am still motivated to compete on the field.”