Throughout its glorious history, many of the beautiful game’s most revered talents have cemented their sacred status by transcending the limits of domestic football, discovering an altogether more elusive form of heroism on the international stage. Come the day the curtains close on their attempts to make their immortal impact, the names of those who best captured the hearts of their adoring fans continue to echo loudest around the sport’s illustrious hall of fame. Dry is the ink in the record books that reads Eusébio, Maradona, Pelé, Thompson.
Truth be told, you’d be forgiven for spotting something of an anomaly amidst that particular list, and you’d be correct in doing so. The man at its conclusion stands out not only as the least exotically named of them, but because holds one remarkable record all to himself, having scored the most goals in a single competitive international fixture – though never before has the word ‘competitive’ been called into question in quite the same way as through his contribution.
Fifteen years plus change have passed since Australia’s Archie Thompson helped himself to a baker’s dozen during his country’s 31-0 demolition of American Samoa in a 2002 World Cup qualifier, and though the record lives on perhaps its most telling influence came in the form of the amendments made to the qualification process by the Oceania Football Confederation as a result of the Socceroos’ penchant for cricket-scoreline wins.
As World Cup qualification goes, the Oceanian zone’s formalities are one of the more futile practices. Picture if you will, ten cowboys stood in a circle. Two of the men stand tall; their gnarled faces contorted with hatred for one another, their index fingers eagerly exploring the curves of the trigger on the Smith & Wesson revolvers that fidget in their leather holsters.
Meanwhile the other eight men stand facing the wrong direction entirely, have water pistols for guns, and only turned up in the hope that they could all just talk it over instead. No prizes for guessing which of the gunslingers represent Australia and New Zealand, and which are the allegorical substitutes for the likes of Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Vanuatu, or the Cook Islands.
In reality, the OFC’s standard qualification scenario consisted of two rounds: a group stage followed by a two-legged playoff. The group stage kept Australia and New Zealand apart by design and gave both countries a handful of competitors against whom they would play just once. The teams that topped the two groups would then play against each other in the aforementioned two-legged play-off to decide who was the cream of the Oceanian crop.
The subsequent winners of this playoff would then be required to play two final matches in an intercontinental playoff versus the fifth-placed nation of a similarly constructed qualification process from the CONMEBOL confederation. Then, and only then, after successfully navigating that playoff, would the victors be granted passage to the World Cup. Simple, right?
It was on 9 April 2001 that Australia kicked-off their 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign, with the first of four games in nine days, and it was at the Coffs International Sports Stadium, just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge of Australia’s wonderfully named Banana Coast, that every game on Australia’s side of the group stage were to be held.
The boys in green and yellow made light work of their first hurdle and happily stuck 22 goals past a sorry Tongan team. The win surmounted the all-time record for an international victory, which had stood for only 14 months following Kuwait’s 20-0 triumph over the prestigious footballing nation of Bhutan in February 2000. However, this new record wasn’t to last either. The rampant Aussies would go on break it again just 48 hours later as they looked to continue their all out assault on innocent goal nets across the continent.
Had the evening’s underdogs been able to field their strongest XI, it would still have taken some rather favourable treatment from the football gods for American Samoa to make the 2,500-mile trip back to their archipelago with their clean sheet unsullied. But fortune does not always favour the brave. Rather, more appropriately, FIFA does not always favour those without valid US passports.
On the eve of the game, FIFA informed the Oceania Football Confederation that players from the neighbouring island of Samoa would be ineligible to represent American Samoa and each travelling member of their squad must possess a valid US passport to enter Australia. This presented an absurd scenario, one which had never been considered by the budding team, and so their numbers were decimated. In fact, of their original 20-man squad, only goalkeeper Nicky Salapu made it to Australia where, much to his dismay, he was accompanied by what may well have resembled an overseas school trip to any bemused onlookers.
The American Samoa manager Tunoa Lui had hoped to plug the colossal void that was now his match-day squad with members of the American Samoa under-20 team. However the majority of those were shackled by commitments to high school exams, so he was forced to recruit players even younger.
With a population of only 50,000 or so people to choose from; if you were a male holder of a valid US passport, who at least knew what a football was, you were in with a fairly decent shout of making the squad. Eventually, stopping short of hosting open auditions, a 16-man squad was pulled together, including three 15-year-old boys and a few lads whom, it was later admitted by the American Samoa management, had never before played a full 90 minutes.
It deserves noting that such farcical measures imposed by FIFA should always be taken with a pinch of salt, especially given the impact made by the game’s eventual quadruple hat-trick-scorer Archie Thompson, who was donning his Australian attire for just the third time, 23 years after being born in New Zealand to a Kiwi father and a Papua New Guinean mother.
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In front of a little over 3,000 people, on another typically warm Spring evening, American Samoa’s motley crew arrived hopeful, in true minnow style, of simply giving a good account of themselves and their poetically-defined South Pacific Unincorporated Territory.
Their only two previous World Cup qualifiers had ended in 13-0 and 8-0 defeats to Fiji and Samoa respectively, but with seven minutes on the clock against Australia the game was still scoreless and the team ranked 203rd in the world slowly began to allow themselves to dream of participating in their first genuinely competitive tie: this could be it. Their maturing hopes were given impetus by relative veteran custodian Nicky Salapu’s first save of the game in around the eighth minute. Unfortunately for him he’d make few more.
When Con Boutsianis opened the scoring direct from a corner his fortuitous notch flung wide the floodgates and only the referee’s final whistle would see them barricaded closed once more. During the remainder of the half Australia hit the back of the net a further 15 times, sending their side in at half-time 16-0 to the good. By this point Thompson had already helped himself to eight goals, and he seemed keen to continue filling his boots after the break. Before that, though, it was over the American Samoa manager to deliver the mother of all team talks.
Half-time team talks can often put managers in a bit of a quandary. Just enough time for a quick quarter-hour barrage of advice from your two omnipresent shoulder-dwelling deities; one imploring you to stick and the other to twist, then you’re back in the dugout to face the music, hoping your gut landed you on the right side when you made your call.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Tunoa Lui faced a more unique dilemma and his best hope during the interval was to administer a small dose of positivity and attempt to bring some order to a makeshift side bereft of ideas on just how to stop haemorrhaging goals. His suggestion: “Be more aggressive and alert, and [don’t] give the ball away so much.”
Some of this wisdom must have seeped into the collective American Samoa consciousness as they conceded fewer in the second half than they did in the first, though only by a margin of one. Even with leading lads Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka sat wrapped under their doonas at home, Thompson and co. romped home another 15 goals in the second half.
Despite the Aussie dominance, it was American Samoa who claimed the night’s loudest cheer. In the 86th minute midfielder Pati Feagiai gained possession of the ball and immediately sought to do what every one of his teammates would have done in his position: have a bloody shot. While his tame punt didn’t actually trouble Michael Petkovic between the Australian sticks, it did at least remind everybody that Australia had a goalkeeper too, and this brought about as rapturous an applause as the 3,000 or so bewildered spectators could muster.
When Tahitian referee Ronan Leaustic finally called time on the torture, the American Samoa players didn’t hang their heads in shame nor did they rush to leave the pitch. Instead they linked arms, approached the fans that had generously applauded their impotent efforts, and sang proudly to them. Following their swansong, all that was left to do for the folks at the stadium was to reset the scoreboard, which read 32-0.
Understandably the scoreboard operator had gotten swept up in the moment and in his changing of the scorecards every three minutes had mistakenly attributed 14 goals to Archie Thompson, giving Australia a winning margin of 32. In the days after the match FIFA released a press report, having corroborated with the referee and match commissioner, confirming what American Samoa had desperately hoped: it was only 31 after all.
Two days later, a weakened Australia team – lining up without the red hot Archie Thompson in their armoury, having been comically dropped despite his 13-goal haul – overcame Fiji in their penultimate group stage fixture, a comparatively yawn-inducing 2-0 win, before securing a place in the playoffs against, you guessed it, New Zealand, by putting 11 past Samoa without reply. Four games played, 66 goals scored and zero goals conceded.
For many, these regular beatings dished out by Australia were seen as unnecessary posturing. Against such fledging nations, desperate for any and all experience, there seemed little to be gained by Australia by smashing their opponents, but they persisted to do just that. Realists would counter that you can only beat what is put in front of you during qualification and if your team can put 30 past your opponents then you needn’t be labelled as callous or disrespectful for doing so. But, more than that, Australia had long believed the first round preliminaries should be disposed of, claiming that group stage games hindered them more than it helped the teams they were so often dismantling, and every obscene scoreline only reiterated this point to the OFC.
Following their famous 31-0 win, Australia’s manager Frank Farina neglected to wax lyrical about his all-conquering Aussies, instead taking the opportunity to again criticise the qualification format, and his sentiment was echoed by Archie Thompson who said: “Breaking the world record is a dream come true for me … But you have to look at the teams we are playing and start asking questions. We don’t need to play these games.”
These comments were met by some antipathy, not least by OFC President Basil Scarsella who rebuked such protestations by saying: “All these countries have the right to play Australia and New Zealand every four years. In the same way Australia like to play strong countries like Argentina, France and Brazil.”
However, FIFA Spokesman Keith Cooper saw reason in the Australian perspective and told reporters: “I don’t think this will happen again. It’s quite clear none of the other five confederations have such a gap between the top and bottom.”
Cooper was quite right and in anticipation of the 2006 World Cup qualifiers an additional preliminary round was added for the smaller nations to ensure some level of filtering. However, in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup qualification process, Australia took their quest for parity one step further and abdicated from the Oceanian Football Confederation altogether, in order to participate in the Asian zone’s qualifiers.
This bold move decreased, with some certainty, the likelihood of the Aussies continuing to waltz through the majority of their international tussles, but it ensured that should they qualify for the World Cup via the Asian Football Confederation route they’d have at least been challenged sufficiently along the way to challenge the status quo of traditionally disappointing Australian participation.
Since moving to the AFC, Australia have comfortably qualified for both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Their showings at each, ranging from consistent mediocrity in South Africa to short-lived optimism in Brazil, failed to evidence a footballing revolution of Germanic proportions.
But the regularity with which they are now grasping the opportunity to play on the grandest stage of all can only be positive for a nation desperate to make their mark, and having proven the systematic sacrifices of their Oceanian contemporaries completely necessary, the wave of positivity upon which Australia will hope to surf into the 2018 World Cup in Russia may just enable them to begin work on a new chapter in Socceroos’ history.
By Will Sharp. Follow @shillwarp