It’s April 2001, and American Samoa goalkeeper, Nicky Salapu, lies on the ground beside his goal. The rest of his team are also flung on the pitch’s surface; battered, beaten, like fallen soldiers in a battlefield.
Salapu raises his head for just a moment, before slumping to the floor again, as his opponents; his tormentors – Australia – depart the International Sports Stadium, satisfied.
They have won, and by a fine margin, too – thirty-one goals, in fact. The final score reads Australia 31-0 American Samoa. It remains the largest victory ever to be witnessed in an international football match.
The game was destined to be one-sided. American Samoa, a chain of islands in the South Pacific, possessing a meagre population of just 54,000, were facing a country boasting 23,000,000 inhabitants, a professional football league, and a squad positively teeming with potential.
The American Samoans were embarking on their first ever World Cup qualification campaign, and previous to their encounter with Australia, had lost 13-0 to Fiji, and then 8-0 to their ultimate rivals, Samoa. The fear was: if Fiji could put thirteen goals past American Samoa, who knows what the score would be versus Oceanian giants Australia?
It didn’t help that American Samoans were found to have only one of their original 20-man squad eligible to play – goalkeeper Nicky Salapu. More problems followed, as they were unable to include the under 20 internationals in their side – they were involved in high-school exams at the time.
The resulting squad comprised three 15-year-olds in a team with an average age of just 18. Then-Football Federation American Samoa vice-president Tony Langkilde would later go on to admit that some members of that team had never played an entire 90-minute match.
It was a side riddled with weaknesses, and no apparent strengths.
Ten minutes in, and Australia had yet to score. Nicky Salapu, in the American Samoa goal was having the game of his life, making a string of excellent stops. Then, following a corner to Australia, midfielder Con Boutsianis scored.
And then Archie Thompson netted, in the 12th minute, before his striker partner David Zdrilic, found the net just a minute later. The goals kept on coming. By half-time it was 16-0.
The second half brought more goals, and by time that the whistle sounded for full-time, the American Samoan players crumpled to the ground, some exhausted, most merely crushed by the wrath of their opponents.
The scoreboard mistakenly read 32-0, but that made no difference to the American Samoans; the meagre strands of optimism ahead of the remainder of the World Cup qualifying campaign had been blown away, in the cruellest of ways.
“I couldn’t see any reason why they (Australia) would want to score so many goals,” said manager Tunoa Lui, after the match. It was an opinion shared by many, including Rangers manager Dick Advocaat, who happened to manage Scottish club Rangers at the time.
When Australian internationals Craig Moore and Tony Vidmar returned from the Australian camp to Rangers, Advocaat proceeded to drop them for the team’s next match, versus Dundee, later citing their behaviour as “unsportsmanlike”.
It would be a match that would prove to hamper the development of the American Samoa national football team. The internet was awash with news of the match, highlights of which was being broadcast on international television. This, of course, generated a lot of negative publicity for the Samoans, Nicky Salapu especially.
“In Seattle (where Salapu now lives) most of the players there say ‘are you from American Samoa, you gave up thirty-one goals’. They make jokes of me,” he said in 2011.
This harrowing defeat would go on to haunt Salapu over the next ten years. “We shouldn’t have taken a team,” he recalls. “That was a huge mistake.”
The loss, however did not only affect Nicky Salapu – it also influenced the rest of the team. Confidence was lost following the match; nobody expected to win. There was no winning mentality, for what was left of it vanished in the aftermath of their contest with Australia.
However, there was an inkling of hope for the future of the American Samoa team, as they defeated Tonga in 2011, emerging victorious by a 2-1 score-line. In the team on that day was Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender footballer to compete in a men’s FIFA World Cup qualifier.
A member of the third-gender Fa’afafine people of Samoa, she was first drafted in to the national football team at the age of just 14, and is now one of the side’s most integral players, starring in her role at centre-back.
The emergence of a new generation of Samoan footballers means that foreign clubs are beginning to show interest: midfielder Ramin Ott and Justin Manao are amongst the most recent to play abroad: Ott in New Zealand with Bay Olympic, and Manao in the USA, with PLU Lutes.
The goal for the FFAS is now to produce a player of European league standards, although this is more of a long-term ambition. Obesity is rife in American Samoa, and with rugby and American football reigning supreme, football is fighting a tough battle to make its mark on the tiny island nation.
It is extremely unlikely that a loss of such magnitude will ever occur again in international football, as the minnows of global football are slowly – albeit surely – improving.
Regardless of whether American Samoa will ever develop to the point in which they are challenging New Zealand for the title of best team in Oceania, football is grabbing a foothold in the island’s community.
Football on the islands of American Samoa is combating fast-food and rugby, and is slowly beginning to gain the upper hand. Possessing a structured setup, as well as a national side, the Pacific island nation may suffer from a lack of interest in The Beautiful Game, but an ongoing grassroots programme funded by the Football Federation American Samoa is changing this – never before has there been so large a quantity of enthusiasm for football.
In the aftermath of their thirty-one to nil defeat, American Samoa were mocked and ridiculed by the press. Following their infamous loss, they fell into footballing obscurity for ten years, until in 2011, they succeeded in beating Tonga 2-1. An uncomfortable win, admittedly, but a win nevertheless – and a sign of better things to come.