For over a decade, the American Samoa (AS) football team was best known for one thing, their humiliating 31-nil loss to Australia in 2001 during the OFC qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup. It remains the world record defeat for a FIFA-recognised international team. What is usually not mentioned in reports of the game is that AS was nowhere near at full strength that day. Owing to passport issues, only the goalkeeper, Nicky Salapu , was a regular member of the squad. In fact, three of the ‘senior’ players in the match-day squad were 15 years old. Salapu was allowed to play by FIFA as he held a US passport (and therefore could represent American Samoa) while the rest of the original 20-man squad were banned as they held Western Samoan passports. Even attempts to hastily call up the u-21 side were hampered by many of that squad sitting high-school exams. Four of the most senior first-choice call-ups had travelled to Australia but were then informed by FIFA that they could not play, despite previous assurance from the OFC that they were eligible.
Despite immediate post-game quotes about “taking learning” from the beating, the result of that game haunted Salapu for many years, and his story is excellently told in James Montague’s book (named after the event) ‘Thirty One Nil’ , and also now in film. ‘Next Goal Wins’ told the story of the AS national team as they went in search of a first ever win during their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. By then, Salapu is found living and working in Seattle, but is recalled by new coach Thomas Rongen and - spoiler alart - is in goal when AS famously beat Tonga 2-1. The redemption for Salapu is emotional, and he is quoted as saying he can now tell his children he is a winner.
Nowadays, AS are the holders of another unique record - they were the first international side to field a transgender player, Jaiyah Saelua. This amazing story is also captured during that tournament in ‘Next Goal Wins’ and far from being a token gesture, Saelua plays a pivotal role in the win over Tonga, including a defensive clearance off the goal-line in the last minute. Saelua is fa’afafine, a third gender that is accepted in many cultures throughout the Pacific Islands as having both traditional male and female traits.
It is also thanks to this film that it became easier to get an AS shirt. As a fundraiser for the team, this Nike shirt was launched and sold through the movie’s official website, which I think was a very nice touch from the film makers. Yes, it is a Nike template (and one that was also used by others including Finland, Nigeria, Macau, Hong Kong and Indonesia) but it is quite nice. Here, it uses the two main colours of the country’s flag, though the away shirt which reverses the colours on the same template is perhaps a nicer shirt. To the best of my knowledge, this can still be considered the current home shirt as it was still being used by underage teams and the senior womens team in 2018 (see below). We can only wait and see if the senior men use it when the qualification for Qatar 2022, which begins in Oceania later this year.