Anybody who has played football at any level has experienced a game where they have been thoroughly outclassed. You try and stay positive, push yourself as hard as you can, whilst the opposition almost effortlessly passes the ball through you and scores goal after goal.
After a while, no matter your prematch expectations, or the repeated shouts of “heads up!”, nothing can stop you thinking at some point of when will this end and what you’d rather be doing.
At the highest level, true hammerings (defined here as anything +10 goals) are pretty rare, bare a German preseason friendly, or a grossly undermatched cup game. On the international stage, though rare, they are not as uncommon, as the weakest football nations come up against the biggest sides in the game.
There are few bigger international underdogs than American Samoa. The tiny island nation with a population of just under 60,000 was a mainstay at the bottom of the FIFA World Rankings for close to a decade.
A game that underscores this position is the infamous Australia vs American Samoa game from April 2001. The focus for this article, and somebody who has come to be something of a personal hero of mine Nicky Salapu, was making his international debut for his nation on that day.
At half-time, the islanders were losing 16-0 to the regional powerhouse Australia. Despite Nicky only earning his first international cap in this game, he was one of the few senior players in the squad at the age of 20. On top of this, Nicky was captain of the team on that day.
Due to visa issues, the team had been decimated in the lead up to this game, and as a result, the team included many High Schoolers, who as Nicky revealed to us, had never played in a full football match. Seriously. The oldest player on the team was 24.
These details never made the blooper reel DVDs which included this game in the years to follow, as it was far funnier to just laugh at the ‘worst team in the world’ than ever look into any of the underlying issues at play.
Can you imagine what it would have been like to make your debut for your country in a 31-0 defeat? “It was exhausting, not only physically but emotionally” and as put by Nicky, “The only way I can protect the goal is to be strong for the team, to keep motivating the team.”
There is a photograph from the game with Nicky, sitting slumped on the ground. He looks like he has been through the equivalent of an emotional car crash, almost in shell shock at what him and his undermatched teammates had been subjected to.
If this is where the story of Nicky Salapu and American Samoa ends, then the message of perseverance through adversity would be a one dimensional one, a message of trying your hardest no matter the circumstances. But that is not where it ended, as anybody who has seen the brilliant documentary “Next Goal Wins” can attest.
On a side note, if there is ever a situation where the future of earth rests in the balance of getting this writer to cry, they need just put on a couple of scenes from this film. That I have watched it hungover a few times has only served to make the situation worse.
In 2011 Thomas Rongen, a dutch coach based in the United States, accepted a call by the American Samoan FA for help in their upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Through 6 weeks of training, he tried to bring about an improvement in the island nation’s team. Through the course of this training programme, he faced challenges from improving the player’s diets to finding time to train with the team’s devoted religious schedule.
Nicky Salapu had actually retired from the team, after that year’s Pacific Games. Like many American Samoan’s, Nicky was based in the United States and after years of taking time off work to travel at his own expense to represent his country, he had decided to pass the baton on to the next generation of islanders.
However, after a conversation with Rongen, who implored him to return for one last try in the pursuit of that elusive first victory, he rejoined the squad for the games against Tonga, the Cook Islands and rivals Samoa.
Of Nicky, Rongen would say “This guy’s got major demons going on. He’s totally driven by the 31-0 score and erasing it for himself and his family. When he mentions American Samoa, people say, ‘You’re the guy that gave up 31 goals.’ There are incredible scars.”
So driven was Salapu by the memory of that game, that in the years to follow he would play against Australia in the FIFA video game, unplug the second controller and see how many goals he was able to score.
What happened in that first game against Tonga led to the team getting press all around the world again, ten years after that 31-0. “I want to win a game; if we win, I will die as a happy person” as Nicky puts it in the film.
And that’s what they do, beating Tonga 2-1. For Nicky Salapu, the victory meant more than just a first victory for his country. It represented redemption, and a justification for his perseverance through all the defeats that had come before.
The redemption that that game brought, watched only by a couple hundred people in Samoa, represented everything for Nicky. It was the “Best moments that I ever felt before, made me feel really humble and a good sad feeling” and if he could, he would “go back and play that game again over and over again.”
Nicky is unlikely to ever get the opportunity to truly banish the ghosts of 2001, with a rematch against Australia. At a premiere for the “Next Goal Wins” film in New York, Aussie legend Tim Cahill joked with Salapu about how they needed to have a game again for charity.
This year Nicky was due to travel back to the islands for the 2022 World Cup qualifier but the event was postponed due to covid. The dream remains of qualifying through the first preliminary round, where American Samoa suffered heartbreak at the hands of their nearest rivals Samoa in 2011 and 2015.
Kiwi director Taika Watiti has produced a film starring Michael Fassbender based on the documentary “Next Goal Wins.” In the future, there may be more fans of the tiny Pacific Island and as a result Nicky Salapu.
It’s an incredible story of perseverance, commitment and the potential of the human spirit. Stories such as these remind us all of why we fell in love with the beautiful game in the first place, and its potential for changing people’s lives.