Great World Cup stories don’t necessarily involve the finals themselves, nor even the players and nations that light them up. The 2014 tournament had an example of such a story, an extraordinary tale of devotion, individuality and national pride. And it all unfolded in a rugby-loving South Pacific nation, involving a side whose confidence was rock bottom following a string of woeful performances that included one infamous defeat which stands as the biggest in World Cup history, no less.
Prior to this particular qualifying campaign American Samoa languished beyond the 200th nation mark in FIFA’s ranking system, sitting alongside Bhutan as nations that had failed to win a single competitive match in their histories. The desire to move upwards from that unenviable position involved a grumpy foreign coach, out-of-shape players, run-down facilities and the first transgender footballer to play an international match. It was a story that became a documentary, and a documentary that was subsequently adapted into a Hollywood drama.
Before you get to this point you had to go back a decade to 2001 though, to a match for which the description of complete and utter humiliation could have been invented. In a game played in the provincial Australian city of Coffs Harbour, American Samoa were beaten 31-0 by their unforgiving hosts.
The British-made documentary Next Goal Wins opens with clips from the match. As the goals pile up, goalkeeper Nicky Salapu’s despondency increases exponentially and, as the 31st and last strike floats past him, he crumples to the ground cutting an utterly dejected figure. Inevitably Salapu is the face of the media the next day, but it is forgotten that he made about a dozen crucial saves that’s helped keep his team on level terms for the first ten minutes or so.
The reality is that even on their best day American Samoa, a nation of only 60,000 people, would have been soundly beaten by Australia and its array of international stars. But the severity of this result has to be taken in context, and the blame has to be partly laid at the door of the governing body. Almost the entire squad was grounded because FIFA insisted they must have US passports (and American Samoans don’t automatically gain a US passport). That ruled out 19 members of the 20 squad – with only Salapu being able to travel – and the replacement group was largely ruled out too for the same reason. The team that was eventually cobbled together to face the formidable Aussies had an average age of 18 and some had barely played the game at all.
Cue the inevitable carnage in coastal New South Wales. Was Australia’s onslaught disrespectful or were they just playing the game as it should be played? The legendary Dutch coach Dick Advocaat, then manager of Rangers in Scotland, was so incensed at the Aussie attitude he dropped both Craig Moore and Tony Vidmar from their next fixture against Dundee. But Australians define themselves by winning first and foremost and are one of the last nations likely to ease off out of sympathy for an out-of-its depth opponent.
The 31-0 result was the nadir of a dismal campaign that had previously brought humblings by Fiji (13-0) and Samoa (8-0), then later added a 5-0 thumping at the hands of Tonga for good measure.
A decade on and American Samoa again faced the unenviable task of making progress in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers. With coaches such as Englishmen Ian Crook and David Brand having attempted and failed to gain a competitive win, the Football Federation of American Samoa turned to the US-based Dutchman Thomas Rongen. He was the only applicant for the job.
As he arrives on the island, the gruff, chain-smoking Rongen rolls off a list of career achievements which included having played with George Best and Johan Cruyff, managing top teams in the MLS, and being involved in the US national team set-up. This job would represent his greatest challenge however.
He arrived shortly after the 2011 Pacific Games in New Caledonia in which the unfortunate trait of losing had continued unabated. Samoan-American Larry Mana’o had returned from Seattle to coach the team for this tournament and he had brought back keeper Salapu.
Mana’o was known for stirring half-time talks but these evidently still failed to rouse the team from its mediocrity. “If you see a wounded animal (do you) sit there? And what, you caress it, try to baby it and put a band aid on it?” he asks of his bemused squad. “No, you kill it, and then you eat it”.
American Samoa lost all five of its games, including the match ups against fellow minnows Tuvalu and Guam. 26 goals were conceded and none were scored. The tournament was to be Salapu’s final appearances for his national side, a hero in more ways than most of the jumped-up stars of the modern era who’s loyalty is to their bank account.
In Pago Pago, Rongen, a self-confessed atheist, had some adjusting to do, such as ingraining himself in the Samoan culture and the religious fervour that defined the islanders and a number of the players among his squad.
His exasperation at the lack of even basic skills and fitness levels was soon exposed on the training pitch. A spat ensues with the Federation chief over a change he wasn’t consulted about and the Dutchman is bluntly reminded who he is working for.
Nevertheless Rongen sticks with it and uses his contacts in the US to bring in a couple of Americans with Samoan heritage: Rawlston Masaniai, who had once played in Germany with VfL Osnabruck, and Ramin Ott, formerly of New Zealand’s top club side Auckland and now a sergeant in the US Army. Ott is using up his entire annual leave to be part of the qualifying series. Neither had major football experience but, given the lack of opportunities to play internationally for the existing squad, they are still more than ideal.
The Dutchman soon comes to understand that his entire career has been about winning, no matter the cost, but here football for his squad is about “being together, singing songs and belief in a higher being.”
One of the regulars in the team is Jaiyah Saelua, a centre-back who becomes the first transgender player to appear for a national team. Taking to the field with artfully assigned make-up, she is most certainly a head turner. But any prejudices are soon met with short-shrift: in the Pacific Games, Saelua is as tough as they come, always willing to prevent a likely goal with a tough tackle if called upon.
Born John Saelua, Jaiyah is a member of Samoa’s third sex, known as fa’afafine(“way of the women”). The Polynesian nations are resolutely religious and conservative, however those who define themselves as a third gender are fully accepted. Saelua notes that in the West transgender people are not recognised as a third sex, whereas in Polynesian cultures they are celebrated for it.
Her national coaches have no qualms about playing Saelua, but travelling outside the Pacific mistrust and prejudices surface like when she tries out for a University of Hawaii team.
“Fifteen minutes into the warm-up, the coach called me over and said he doesn’t want to put the rest of the team into an uncomfortable position and sent me home. That was my first major experience of discrimination.”
Rongen picks Saelua in his first qualifying game, against Tonga, and she wins the player-of-the-match honour. The American Samoa line-up to play the fancied Tongans includes Nicky Salapu who has been persuaded to return for this campaign. Little is expected of the Samoans – Tonga have also had issues preventing goals in the past, but they at least have recorded victories in Oceania competitions, including that 5-0 win over America Samoa in 2001.
In a stadium more fitting for a provincial town non-league match, Ott’s seemingly innocuous shot is fumbled by the keeper for the opener, then Shalom Luani’s chip after 74 minutes extends the unlikely lead for the minnows’ minnows. Tonga get one back, and against an exhausted opponent, come close to equalising late on.
The emotions vented at the final whistle reflect the dedication, hard work and devotion that Rongen has teased out of the team in just a month. The old cliches of pride and commitment bandied around in top-class football are exposed as hollow; in Apia the world’s supposedly worst national team is showing exactly what those qualities represent.
For Salapu there’s a sense of redemption after the humiliating defeats of yesteryear; for Rongen it’s a part of the healing process. He last cried at his teenage daughter’s funeral.
There’s two further matches in the section and they follow on quickly. A crucial point is gained in a 1-1 draw against the Cook Islands who sack their coach pitch side just before kick off. Luani’s 24th minute opener is cancelled out late on but this is still another first for American Samoa: a competitive draw, which the players feel merit the siva tau – the Samoan haka – at the final whistle, until Rongen puts the kibosh on that as he’s so angry that they failed to hold on for the win.
Nevertheless, this result sets up an unlikely winners-takes-all encounter against big brothers Samoa who also sit on four points after beating the Cooks and drawing with Tonga. This is the end of the line: a solitary 89th-minute strike seals victory for the more fancied Westerners, just minutes after their neighbours hit the post.
For the American Samoans the results bring a more tangible reward than qualification for the next stage: they rise to a vertigo-inducing 186th place and hand the baton of the 203rd and lowest spot in FIFA’s ranking list to Bhutan.
For the coach, who has a paternalistic relationship with the squad, a can-do attitude and a determination to maximise their limited potential can account for the astonishing turnaround.
“I kicked their asses. Up at 4.30 in the morning, running, working – the guys then went off to work or school, and came back at 5 o’clock, I then kicked their asses again and they kept coming back for more with a smile their face. And that’s incredible,” he said.
“Our spoilt, millionaire babies in England or in Holland would not have accepted that, there would’ve been a riot.”
Afterwards Rongen returned to the US and it was a full four years before American Samoa took to the field again under Mana’o who took over for the 2018 campaign. The momentum from 2011 rolled over, and despite a 3-2 defeat to Samoa in the first match, they went on to record a remarkable pair of wins: a repeat of the famous 2-1 victory over Tonga and a 2-0 defeat of the Cook Islands, with Mana’o’s US-based nephew Justin bagging one in each game. The reward is a rise to 164th place in the global rankings.
The 2019 South Pacific Games proved to be something of a comedown by comparison. Facing Oceania’s finest, they succumbed to heavy defeats against the Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Caledonia with their only point coming in a 1-1 draw against Tuvalu. Salapu, now in his late 30s, was once again involved.
For a nation of such small numbers – albeit with a sizeable diaspora in the States – and with American sports such as grid iron and baseball competing for young people’s attentions, the round ball sport has performed remarkably well in recent years with the U-20s and women’s sides also showing considerable progress.
The exploits of 2011 have now captured the attentions of Hollywood with the comedy-drama based on the documentary completed, its release date delayed by the covid-induced downturn. It’s directed by renowned New Zealand director Taika Waititi with Michael Fassbender adopting a Dutch accent to play Rongen, the unknown fa’afafine actor Kaimana playing Saelua and a number of Palagi (non-Samoans) such as Rhys Darby also featuring.
Saelua largely gave up the game due to lack of opportunities to play, allowing her to focus on her full transition. She was selected to be part of the jury on FIFA’s 2019 Diversity Award.
The men’s national team was due to play in the qualifying stage for the OFC Champions League earlier this year but pandemic restrictions mean the competition has now been delayed, possibly to January 2022, with a revised format that will likely mean American Samoa will face seeded teams early on.
Expectations are again limited but they are at least likely to give a good account of themselves.