DILI – Eleven-year-old Nuno de Oliveira intently watches a late afternoon football match on a muddy, barely marked field in East Timor’s capital. One day, he hopes to don the red and yellow shirt of his fledgling nation.
"I like to watch them pass the ball around. The way they pass it, it’s cool," says de Oliveira, who started playing when he was six and names England’s David Beckham as his idol.
"Four years after East Timor became the world’s youngest country in the wake of 24 years of Indonesian occupation, soccer is proving a focal point for national pride, its leaders and people say.
"East Timorese people love football from the day they are born. We just need to organise better to play good football. We are just starting out as a nation," says former professional player Almerio Isaac, 37.
The smartly moustachioed Isaac, who says he played for the Indonesian national side for a season during its occupation, gives a pep talk to the players while the sun sets in a glow over Dili’s nearby expanse of beaches.
"I’m not a coach, I’m just trying to be a good role model," he explains.
Emilio Ribeiro da Silva, who wears his national number 10 shirt for the informal skins-and-shirts session, is among those that East Timorese soccer fans are pinning their hopes on.
The 23-year-old player says East Timor needs to devote more money to setting up more competitions so players can get experience.
"We do not have that much funding to set up competitions. We have very few tournaments in East Timor," he complains.
"We need more attention from officials."
East Timor’s national side made its international debut in the 2003 Asian Cup, when it lost 3-2 to Sri Lanka and 3-0 to Chinese Taipei.
In the 2004 Tiger Cup, it lost 5-0 to Malaysia, 8-0 to Thailand, but scored its first goal in a nail-biting match against the Philippines which they narrowly lost 2-1 after taking the lead.
"I felt proud. Although we lost, 2-1 was alright — we didn’t have too much time for preparation," da Silva says. In the next match they scored again, though lost 3-1 to Myanmar.
Amandio de Araujo Sarmento, general secretary of the five-year-old Football Federation of East Timor (FFTL) says that a coach was sent from Portugal — East Timor’s former coloniser — to train the team for six weeks.
"But the language constraint was very difficult. He spoke Portuguese and they couldn’t understand what he said."
East Timor was admitted to the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in September last year — a big step forward for soccer in the tiny nation of one million, Sarmento says at his bungalow-office.
"For almost 500 years we were a colony of Portugal and Indonesia and now, after independence, we have this opportunity," he enthuses.
FIFA provides 250,000 dollars a year in assistance but that amount is still not enough to fund desperately needed infrastructure, along with training and travel expenses of the national side and the needs of local teams, he says.
"Every day invitations come from Brazil, Portugal, Asian nations for us to attend events, like under 17s, under 21s, women’s and others. The problem is in terms of finances," he says.
"We need a lot of money to build football in East Timor. As a new country we have to build not only the national but the district level as well," he says. East Timor’s 13 districts do not yet have a league.
Just fixing Dili’s main stadium, with a capacity of some 25,000, would cost about one million dollars, he says.
"Soccer is not only a normal sport — it’s a big business. For them, our kids, our boys, if we can train and develop them … who knows whether they could play in Europe, or somewhere else?"
Aniceto Berielo, secretary general of East Timor’s Referee Association, says soccer is popular because "if you are good at playing soccer, you can have a future".
"Football can help rebuild the country. I hope that some companies can help football develop further, like through sponsorship, and give hope to young players, give them a brighter future," the 29-year-old says.
Foreign minister Jose Ramos-Horta says he is not a fan himself but still gets "very worked up when Portugal play".
He says an agreement is about to be signed with the Barcelona Football Foundation which would see coaches sent here in an integrated approach to train young players, though the details are yet to finalised.
Football fan and President Xanana Gusmao says that soccer is "very, very important" for the East Timorese, gesturing to an array of gleaming silver cups nestled on a bureau at his office won by the national under-12 team.
"You know, soccer is something that brings together people. The last world cup in Korea and Japan, it could be called a peace gathering," he says.
"Maybe in the next five years we can have a team to be proud of, a team that raises our flag in other places of the world."