By this point, they were beyond even humiliation. The bedraggled and deflated American Samoan team stood in a line, their baggy shirts flapping in the light evening breeze. With arms around each other’s shoulders they faced the appreciative Australian crowd and sang, in spite of the tears welling up in many of the players’ eyes. It was a song of pride, of defiance, of home. But home must have felt a long way off for the youthful squad who had just become world news.
“After the game we walked into the locker room, I bowed my head down and I cried a little bit,” goalkeeper Nicky Salapu recalled years later. “I felt very embarrassed and like I don’t want to play soccer anymore.”
American Samoa were ranked at the bottom of FIFA’s rankings at the time of their World Cup qualifying match with Australia in April 2001. Having become members of FIFA in 1998, the 2002 World Cup qualifiers were the first that they were eligible to take part in. In their three years as FIFA members up to that point, American Samoa had played eight matches and lost them all – Tahiti inflicting the most damage with 12-0 and 18-0 victories. For the qualifiers, Oceania’s ten teams were split into two groups of five. American Samoa, along with Samoa, Tonga and Fiji were put in a group with the might of Australia.
The Socceroos had narrowly missed out on the 1998 World Cup finals, at the time under their English coach Terry Venables, contriving to throw qualification away by conceding two late goals to Iran when a place in the finals was all but assured. The scars from that trauma still ran deep when the subsequent tournament came around, and Australia were determined to open their campaign in a professional and ruthless manner.
Thankfully for their opposition, the Australian squad was missing many of its top stars – the likes of Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer and Mark Viduka – but their squad still featured players from Europe’s top leagues. At the other end of the scale, American Samoa selected a squad of twenty to represent the worst team in world football, containing a mix of the best and most experienced players the islands had to offer, along with a smattering of youth, unscarred by past failures. The selection contained several players originally hailing from neighbouring Samoa whose heritage or current residency was American Samoan.
Then came the hammer blow. An eleventh hour intervention from FIFA ruled those players not holding a US passport, as fully-fledged American Samoans do, would be ineligible to play. Instantly 19 of the twenty-man squad were excluded, with only the 20-year-old goalkeeper Nicky Salapu carrying the required document.
Plans to replace them with players from the national under-20 squad were also scuppered because the majority of them were sitting their high school exams at the time. They had to resort to using members of the youth squad who were flown out to Australia post-haste. Mostly in their teenage years, three of the replacements were only 15-years-old. This patchwork national team produced a 16 ‘man’ squad with an average age of just 19. Youthful and inexperienced as they were, the World Cup qualification process was soon upon them.
Unsurprisingly, things got off to a bad start. A 13-0 defeat to Fiji was followed by an 8-0 loss to Samoa. Meanwhile, the Aussie machine began in relentless style – on the same day as the clash between the two Samoas, Australia stormed their way into the record books with a 22-0 win; a new world record victory in international football.
Australia’s record win was greeted with much guffawing delight by the world’s observers, relishing the Socceroos’ record-breaking exploits. There would be no guffaws from the American Samoans, however. They were up next. The unrelenting Australian behemoth was almost upon them. “We are here to learn. We have had a lot of problems but we don’t give up,” American Samoa coach Tunoa Lui stated defiantly. A little more desperately he added, “We are asking the Lord to help keep the score down.” The Lord would have his work cut out.
Match day arrived and the crowd in the Coffs Harbour International stadium in New South Wales, a relatively sparse one on a warm autumnal weekday evening, were sat either in the small main stand alongside the touchline, or on grass banks circling the ends of the oval stadium. The smattering of fans sat back, sipped their beers and settled in for the expected crushing Australian victory. There was a merciful ten minute period at the start of the match when Salapu kept Australia at bay with a string of fine early saves. Such defiance could never last though, and once the back line was first breached by Con Boutsianis the floodgates didn’t merely nudge open, they completely fell apart, smashed asunder by the onrushing Australian tide.
The goals rained in from all sides, all angles and in all manners. There were goals from neat flicks and towering headers. Goals from distance and from close in and at least a dozen, if not more, simple tap-ins. All the while, the luckless Salapu seemingly slumped further into despair; shorn of his regular teammates he was offered virtually no protection by the inexperienced, overawed, and frankly startled teenagers ahead of him. The normally partisan Australian crowd took pity on their adversaries and sympathetically cheered the American Samoans if they completed passes or made an interception, and treated them to standing ovations at both half-time and full-time.
Each save from Salapu, and there were a great many amongst the carnage, was met with applause as resounding as each Australian goal; his effort and ability appreciated despite its apparent fruitlessness and futility. His teammates ran around chasing Australian shadows, drawn to the ball like moths to a flame, or like schoolboys in an unorganised kick about. Schoolboys is what most of them were of course; young lambs to the slaughter, far out of their depth. By half time no fewer than 16 goals had found their way past Salapu, making for a somewhat tricky half time team talk in the American Samoan dressing room. But in the face of an opponent unwilling to step off the gas, the carnage continued unabated in the second half.
It was surely only a matter of time before Australia broke their world record from days earlier. And in the 65th minute they did so when Archie Thompson, a hitherto relative unknown in only his third appearance for the Australian national team, scored his 11th goal of the match and the team’s 23rd. At 23-0 the world record had gone again, but most alarmingly there were still 25 minutes to go. The scoring continued with increasing regularity and by the end the scoreboard displayed the final score as 32-0; a bit of over excitement on the part of its operators who had, in their excitement, apparently skipped straight from 27-0 to 29-0. Once FIFA had consulted with the match officials the result was confirmed as 31-0 and Archie Thompson had bagged himself a whopping 13 goals – another world record. The Australians had scored at a rate of one goal every two minutes and 45 seconds – a simply astonishing rate.
In amongst the endless Australian onslaught, American Samoa had managed the very occasional foray up field. On one glorious occasion they finally brought a save from the otherwise utterly unemployed Australian goalkeeper Michael Petkovic. In the 86th minute, and already 29-0 down, midfielder Pati Feagiai sent a weak shot in the direction of the Australian goal, prompting Petkovic into an easy save. It would be their only shot on goal all evening, and was the only time Petkovic touched the ball in the entire match. It was met with the biggest cheer of the night.
• • • •
American Samoa take a break from training
• • • •
As the Australian crowd warmly and sympathetically applauded their beaten opponents, the American Samoans were beginning to come to terms with having suffered the worst defeat in international football history, and by some margin. The 31-0 defeat would make a laughing-stock of the American Samoans, gaining them an unwanted place on many a ‘and finally …’ segment of numerous global news outlets.
Such a beating leaves its scars on its victims. None suffered more than the hapless Salapu who would carry the demons with him for years. Emotional wounds that would be opened again and again as his name became synonymous with the defeat. In spite of picking the ball out of his net 31 times Salapu had, incredibly, done more than any of his teammates to keep the score down. As heavy a defeat as it was, it could easily have been so much worse but for his saves; around twenty in all. He had flung himself from pillar to post, desperately trying to stem the tide amidst the devastation in front of him.
He would return to his home to Seattle to be reminded of this match at every turn. Any conversation about American Samoa would inexorably lead to the question, ‘Oh, are you the guy that gave up 31 goals?’ His son was teased about it at school. Salapu himself would seek to exorcise the demons by repeatedly taking on Australia on his PlayStation, scoring goal after goal for American Samoa against an unmanned opposition, the second controller sitting idly by his side.
American Samoa completed their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 5-0 defeat to a Tonga side who were no doubt thoroughly relieved to have had their own world record defeat usurped so quickly. In all, 57 goals were conceded in the four matches, with no goals scored. Their search for an elusive first victory would go on for quite some time. As their FA chief Tony Langkilde lamented: “Football is a game of three possibilities: win, tie and loss. For us it is only a game of one possibility: loss. We have not had the other two possibilities yet.”
• • • •
“When I got here I had never seen a lower standard of international football,” said Thomas Rongen in his gruff, gravelly, Dutch-accented delivery. A coach with the United States under-21 side, Rongen had arrived in American Samoa with just three weeks to go before the first round of Oceania World Cup qualifying in November 2011. His new team still sat plumb bottom of FIFA’s world rankings.
In the decade since their unforgettable 31-0 rout at the hands of Australia, American Samoa’s fortunes had not improved one jot. In 17 subsequent matches over the intervening years they had lost every single one, conceding 125 times and scoring just four in return. Two further World Cup qualifying campaigns had come and gone in a flurry of more heavy defeats – 15 conceded to Vanuatu, 12 to the Solomon Islands, 11 to Fiji. Things would be different this time. They had recruited a professional.
“I inherited this team and there were five guys literally thirty or forty pounds overweight,” Rongen added. “There was no way they could even play ten minutes if they wanted to compete at this kind of level.” A 55-year-old Dutchman, Rongen was the archetypal football man, straight talking, charismatic and direct. Slight and wiry, what he lacked in physical stature he more than made up for with his manner and demeanour. He’d played with and coached some of the best. He came with pedigree and experience. And he was now coach of the worst team in the world.
Having come through his hometown Ajax Amsterdam’s youth system, he had moved to America and the razzmatazz of the North American Soccer League in 1979 after failing to make the grade with Ajax. There he played alongside and against some of the world’s true greats. He played with his hero Johan Cruyff in both Los Angeles and Washington, and took on the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and George Best. Subsequently moving into coaching, Rongen was a part of the staff for the USA at the 1998 World Cup before becoming head coach at several MLS sides. In American Samoa, he saw the opportunity to coach a senior national team, albeit the lowliest national team of them all.
In those short, few weeks before the World Cup matches kicked off, Rongen set about trying to get his players into some sort of shape and worked on passing on as much technical and tactical insight as possible. Rather shocked at the standard of player he had to work with, he sought to supplement the local squad by bringing in some American Samoan players living in the US who had competed at a higher level. Nicky Salapu, the man who had conceded those 31 goals was also persuaded to come out of international retirement to give it one more go in the World Cup qualifying arena, to try to claim that ever elusive victory and put his demons to bed once and for all. Ten years on it may have been, but the damage inflicted by their Australian nightmare was still very real.
“I called him and asked him to come back, to shed his demons,” said Rongen. “It was a big gamble. I had no idea when I called him how driven he would be, how motivated he was. But Nicky was the only player from the 31-0 loss. Everyone knew of him. He became a true inspiration – almost like we owe it to Nicky to work hard and do something special. He had been reliving that game for all these years, and if he can exorcise his demons then so can the team.”
And what demons they were. “He asked me if I wanted to remove the embarrassment of that game, the 31-0 to Australia,” Salapu recalled. “He said this was a good moment, that he was a professional coach, that we had good players and some from here in the States. I didn’t feel like going. When he told me all these things, and telling me he wanted to put the embarrassment of the 31-0 to the side and become winners. I was like, ‘ok, this will be the best moment to go back and come out of the embarrassment.’ I’m glad he called me.”
“Those guys have been in some battles, and none more so than Nicky,” Rongen added. “For him, it’s all about showing the world that this country, not only himself but the team, can do something. That we can win a game. That we aren’t losers.”
In Apia’s delightfully named Joseph S. Blatter stadium on the neighbouring island of Samoa, four of the weakest national teams in the world would battle each other to live out, albeit briefly, their dreams of reaching the global show in Brazil. For American Samoa, the dream was a more realistic one: for once simply not losing. The four lowliest ranked of Oceania’s World Cup entrants would play this first round group with the winner progressing on to the next stage. Joining American Samoa were their hosts and neighbours Samoa, plus Tonga, and the Cook Islands. American Samoa had never so much as scored a goal against any of them.
• • • •
Rongen prepares his troops for the battles ahead
• • • •
As the two teams lined up for their respective national anthems the American Samoans, resplendent in their crisp white and red kit, stood in line with hands on their hearts. This collection of amateurs, who kept on putting themselves in the firing line and kept on being beaten down, were back for more. Standing taller than them all was the team’s elegant and leggy centre-back, Johnny Saelua. With his long hair tied back into a pony-tail and wearing eye-liner and make-up, Saelua was no ordinary player. To his teammates he wasn’t Johnny. To them she was Jaiyah, and was about to become the World Cup’s first ever transgender player.
As the frenetic early exchanges subsided and the game’s patterns settled, something strange began to happen. American Samoa were having repeated attacks and efforts on goal and were dominating proceedings. At the back, Jaiyah Saelua was keeping the defensive line tight, and any efforts that did break through were comfortably dealt with by Nicky Salapu behind her, who was playing with an assuredness and confidence, thwarting all efforts at a Tongan breakthrough.
In an early American Samoan attack, a shot from just outside the Tongan box by Ramin Ott, one of the recruits from the USA, hit the adjoining corner of post and crossbar. The thud of the ball, having come so close to giving American Samoa the lead, caused a gasp from the smattering of spectators and several sharp intakes of breath from those on the American Samoan bench. They were getting closer and closer. Straightaway, the ball broke for the Tongans who raced up field on the counter attack and found their striker all alone inside the box with only Salapu to beat, but the keeper stood tall and made the save. More sharp intakes of breath on the bench.
Shortly before half-time with the match still goalless, some nice passing possession in midfield led to a ball forward from Jaiyah to Ramin Ott, who fired a rather speculative shot from a good 35 yards out. It was a weak effort that bounced in the penalty area before it reached the goal. But the bounce confused the diving Tongan keeper, springing up from the grass higher than he expected. In true comic style, the ball passed through his hands, and hit him in the face. As he crashed to the ground, he could only turn in despair to see the ball nestling in the net behind him. American Samoa had scored a goal.
After all the years of heartbreak, of endless beatings and scarcely a goal to celebrate, scoring in such a manner seemed oddly appropriate. The players ran around screaming in sheer disbelief as though unsure of what to do. They’d prepared thoroughly for this match but didn’t seem to have any plan for what had just happened. Many of the players bore down on Rongen and soon the whole squad ended up piled up in a delirious heap in celebration in front of their coach.
As the second half wore on, the nerves increased as it became apparent that victory was a real possibility. With just over quarter of an hour to go, that possibility edged a step closer. A loose Tongan header in midfield was seized upon by Justin Mana’o in the midfield. He sent a high, looping ball through to the 17-year-old Shalom Luani who raced clear of the static defence. Luani and the Tongan keeper both bore down on the ball and appeared set on a crunching collision. Luani was there slightly quicker, getting a foot to the ball moments before the keeper sent him sprawling and squealing in pain. He collapsed to the ground, clearly hurt, but he had succeeded in clipping the ball over the keeper. He glanced up to see it nestling in the net for a second goal. Victory was now so close they could almost touch it. Luani was hobbling, but carried on.
On the sidelines, Rongen tried to keep the mounting excitement in check. “This game is not over guys,” he implored, attempting to keep his players fully focused on the task at hand. As the final moments ticked by agonisingly slowly, the American Samoan players visibly tired. Their play – sharp, intense and snappy before – became increasingly loose, while players started going down with cramp. Tonga pulled a goal back with a fine back post header with minutes remaining to heighten the nerves yet further. Then as the clock reached 90 minutes, with the play from both teams increasingly desperate, ragged and chaotic, Tonga’s striker was put clean through with Jaiyah Saelua in hot pursuit desperately trying to cover. Nicky Salapu charged from his goal to challenge the onrushing striker. Win or draw, it was all in this moment.
Salapu got there first but the ball broke to another Tongan forward. The ball was nudged goalwards, but there to clear it and maintain the slender lead was Jaiyah Saelua who prodded the ball away. Seconds later, it was whacked clear into touch to the audible delight of those biting their nails on the bench. Salapu later described the moment: “All of a sudden, I was ‘Where is the ball? Oh my God, I got beat.’ When I looked back, the ball was already coming back [clear], and I saw Jaiyah standing there.”
At the final whistle just moments later, the American Samoan players, without the strength of their earlier goal scoring celebrations, stood arms aloft in celebration, or sunk to their knees in sheer relief, all remaining energy now exhausted. After 30 defeats, American Samoa had finally won a game. Nicky Salapu buried his face deep into his gloved hands at the final whistle, stifling his screams. After all his hurt and humiliation, he found it hard to take things in: “It’s like a miracle, but it’s not a miracle. It’s very emotional right now, it’s overwhelming.”
His teammates performed a celebratory post match haka, the siva tau, in the centre of the pitch. It was led by the captain, a shirtless and almost delirious Laitama Amisome, and was delivered with a gut-wrenching level of intensity. Salapu stood to one side and watched, lost in his own thoughts. “Finally, I’m going to put the past behind me,” he said. “I can live my life again. I feel like I’m just released from prison.”
Rongen was equally effusive in his thoughts on Salapu’s redemption. “The first thing after the game, he looked to me,” he said of Salapu. “He was crying, and said, ‘I can now tell my children that I’m a winner’, and that is bigger than the game itself quite frankly.”
American Samoa’s winning run didn’t last. They drew with the Cook Islands in the next match having led for much of the time. The Cook Islands equaliser had come from an own goal, but that disappointment didn’t dampen the American Samoan spirits. It was another notable achievement, their first ever draw. It led to a Samoan clasico to finish the group as Samoa and American Samoa fought it out to claim the single place in the next round.
It proved one step too far for Rongen’s team, going down 1-0 to a last-gasp winner, having moments earlier hit the post themselves. But after all that had gone before, their single win was the sweetest of moments. It had given a new hope to a team that had for so long been bereft. It had rekindled Thomas Rongen’s love for the game and it had given Nicky Salapu his life back.
“It’s like everything … it’s all gone,” Salapu commented afterwards. Years of frustration and turmoil were washing away. “I think right now I’m a free man. It feels really good.”
Rongen had been rewarded with a reminder of the pure joy of football. A memory of the game he knew and fell in love with as a child in the Netherlands, with players who competed not for glory, but simply for the joy of playing – a far cry from the cynical, professional world of football to which he had become accustomed. “It is pure, it can’t get any purer,” he said warmly. “These guys actually play because they love the game. They get zero, nothing. It’s pretty amazing.”
As the players prayed together on the pitch before performing one final haka, not of victory, but of redemption, Rongen added: “It’s great for the players, great for soccer in general because it was done by a bunch of amateurs that played the game for love and passion. It was as pure as it can get. I’ll carry this with me the rest of my life.”
By Aidan Williams. Follow @yad_williams