11 April 2001: an Australian team has beaten a Samoan team 31-0 in a competitive international sporting fixture. Here’s the twist – it wasn’t a game of rugby.
That was the rather lop-sided conclusion of a FIFA World Cup qualifier nearly 20 years ago, with the fully professional Socceroos facing an American Samoa side with an average age of 18 and containing some players as young as 15. Almost all of their senior squad were unable to travel as they held passports for Samoa, a sovereign state with its own FIFA-recognised national team. The one exception was a goalkeeper by the name of Nicky Salapu, whose name would enter the football record books for less than cerebral reasons.
While Australia were fresh off the back of setting an all-time World Cup qualifying record by beating Tonga 22-0, American Samoa, dead last in the official world rankings, had lost every FIFA-recognised international match they had played up to that point. Their previous two games had seen them lose to Fiji and Samoa by a combined score of 21-0. Yet they still cobbled together a team in order to fulfil a fixture so lopsided that no self-respecting bookmaker would even have put it on their cards.
On a Wednesday afternoon at Coffs Harbour in New South Wales, their resistance lasted 10 minutes, a respectable length of time given the extraordinary disparity between the two teams. Alas, once Con Boutsianis broke the deadlock, the dam well and truly burst. Australia added five more in the subsequent 10 minutes, reached double figures by the 27th minute and took a 16-0 lead into the interval. By half-time, they needed just seven more goals to smash a record they had just set so recently, the ink wouldn’t have even been dry on its addition to the annals of history.
The new record was set with 25 minutes still to play and, despite a 12-minute spell during which American Samoa kept their opponents out, there would be a late surge to leave the final score at Australia 31-0 American Samoa. The vanquished side managed one shot all afternoon; it came in the 86th minute. Even the person charged with updating the stadium scoreboard couldn’t keep up as they displayed the damage at 32-0. As well as the Socceroos setting a world record for the biggest victory in an official men’s FIFA fixture, Archie Thompson made history with his 13-goal haul being the most in any such game of football.
Far from being embarrassed by the unwanted world record they had just set, however, American Samoa’s players sang and danced with spectators after the final whistle. Indeed, the Australians seemed more perturbed by winning such an imbalanced match than the Samoans did by losing it. Tunoa Lui, the coach who had just overseen this unprecedented defeat, reflected afterwards that he felt his team were making progress and vowed that they would be “competitive” at the Oceanian level within five years. Bizarre as it may seem, the damage would have been even greater had it not been for a string of fine saves by Salapu.
Lui’s confident prediction about the Samoans proved wildly optimistic. Even within the much-derided Oceania Football Confederation, they were the runt of the litter. In continental competitions such as the Pacific Games, as well as OFC Nations Cup and World Cup qualification, the rest of the 2000s passed without them so much as registering a draw. Nor did they have San Marino’s excuse of having to occasionally take on a Germany or Spain; American Samoa have never played a team from another FIFA confederation in their history, routinely coming up second best against the likes of Vanuatu, Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea.
Ten years after their world-record mauling in Coffs Harbour, the lowest-ranked nation on Earth made a notable coaching appointment, appointing Thomas Rongen to lead their senior team. The Dutchman came from a very different footballing climate, having coached four clubs in Major League Soccer (and winning the MLS Cup), been part of the USA’s coaching ticket at the 1998 World Cup and twice managed the American under-20 side. Indeed, he would be held responsible for the Stars and Stripes losing Neven Subotic to the Serbian national team, with the coach criticising the then-Borussia Dortmund prospect in public and leaving him out of an Under-20 World Cup squad for the U.S.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was stunned by the standard of football in American Samoa, describing some players as “30 or 40 pounds overweight”, but he came with the intention of shedding their inferiority complex as the team who were happy just to be playing football. Slowly but surely, his autocratic methods inspired a change in attitude among his players, instilling in them a mentality of playing to win rather than just going out to play.
22 November 2011 would prove to be another red-letter day in the history of international football with American Samoa involved – and that was the case before a ball had even been kicked. Among Rongen’s starting line-up was one Jaiyah Saelua, who became the first transgender player to start an officially recognised men’s international football fixture. Born as Johnny Saelua, she identified as fa’afafine, a biologically male gender identifying itself as female and largely accepted in Samoan and Polynesian society, and wore full make-up every time she played football. Having made her American Samoa debut as a 15-year-old, she was now 23 and making history of a different kind for her nation. It would prove to be a historic occasion not just for her but for all of her team-mates.
That the FIFA World Cup qualifier between American Samoa and Tonga in the Samoan capital of Apia had an official attendance of 18 illustrated how little interest the match had garnered. Salapu, still faithfully keeping goal for Rongen’s side, made a multitude of impressive saves in a one-sided first half and it came as no surprise that the deadlock was eventually broken before half-time. What was a surprise, though, was that it was scored by Ramin Ott…who was playing for American Samoa and had been set up by a splendid pass from Saelua. The worst team in international football led 1-0 at half-time.
Would Tonga be roused into a response after the interval? The game’s second goal came from Shalom Luani…and it doubled American Samoa’s lead. Tonga later halved the deficit to set up a tense final few minutes and, in stoppage time, it took a heroic goal-line clearance from Saelua to keep her team in front. They ultimately hold out to win 2-1, tasting victory in an official match for the first time in their history.
It was a moment of extreme redemption for Salapu, who was in goals for the 31-0 and now had featured in his nation’s historic win. He knelt to the ground in tears of joy at the final whistle, with Jaiyah Saelua also visibly emotional. American Samoa had now made international football history on the double for the right reasons.
Alas, they didn’t have much time to dwell on that achievement as, just 48 hours later, they were in action against Cook Islands for their next World Cup qualifier. With the shackles of perpetual defeat thrown off, American Samoa dominated the first half and led through a goal from Luani. Unfortunately, Tala Luvu put through his own net on 62 minutes to unwittingly equalise and the match ended 1-1. The Samoans had followed up their groundbreaking victory with a respectable draw, but while the players seemed pleased with their efforts afterwards, Rongen tore strips off them in the dressing room, berating Salapu when the goalkeeper suggested that the team perform their native haka to celebrate the result. The no-nonsense Dutchman was not accepting a draw as good enough, unflinching in his desire to instil greater professionalism in the team.
American Samoa then took on their neighbours Samoa in a do-or-die qualifier to determine who would reach the OFC Nations Cup and progress to the next phase of World Cup qualification. Needing a win to advance, Rongen’s side were still level going into stoppage time in heavy rain in Apia but then fell victim to a breakaway 92nd-minute goal from Samoa. Their dreams of a first-ever Nations Cup appearance had died and the disappointment was all too much for a tearful Saelua afterwards. However, Rongen would later admit that he was proud of how the team “grew up” during his time in charge. It would be his final match at the helm but, under his watch, American Samoa rose to 173th in the FIFA world rankings. Saelua also stepped away, focusing on the performing arts rather than the football field.
American Samoa have since won three more official international fixtures but have yet to qualify for the OFC Nations Cup or advance beyond the group stage of the Pacific Games. In 51 recognised international matches, they have scored 30 goals – one fewer than they let in on that humiliating day against Australia. When they last played in 2019, Salapu – now 40 – was still in the squad.
There is a distinct possibility that American Samoa’s status as recipients of the heaviest defeat in a senior men’s international fixture will remain permanent, but the progress they made under Rongen demonstrated that they would no longer be held as hostages to unwanted history. Also, Jaiyah Saelua had broken new ground in the world of football and proven with her performances that her participation in the team was not mere tokenism or number-filling. For a nation ranked 192nd in the world, American Samoa have made quite a bit of footballing history – for better and for worse.
For further reading on the American Samoa football team, check out James Montague’s excellent book ‘Thirty One Nil’.