If ever a team needed a dose of military-like leadership and guidance, it is American Samoa. Once statistically the world’s worst international team, the remote Polynesian nation are on a clear upward tangent, and Ramin Ott has played a significant role in that development.
American Samoa’s class of 2015 are a partly disparate group hailing from a variety of locations, with limited time to build cohesion or team unity. Yet, under the captaincy of team veteran Ott - a sergeant in the US Army who has served in Afghanistan - the team head into the Friday’s final matchday of OFC Stage 1 FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™ qualifying within sight of a goal that was once unthinkable: progress to the next stage of the competition.
This, after all, was a nation that had never won an international game until four years ago. The team went without a victory for well over a decade, in a period which included an infamous world record 31-0 defeat. And the 29-year-old Ott is one of the few long-serving players whose career has straddled the period, which saw the team move from also-rans to genuine regional competitors.
Ott was raised in the capital Pago Pago and moved to USA in his early 20s. He decided to join the US military five years ago and has risen to the rank of sergeant, where his leadership qualities were quickly recognised, resulting in an arduous nine-month stint in Afghanistan.
Now stationed in Hawaii after nearly a decade living and playing in different parts of the US, Ott says his military experience has been beneficial for international football. “My leadership skills I try to carry over to the game,” Ott told FIFA.com from the Tonga capital of Nuku’alofa. “Everything in the military is attention to detail. I tell the boys like it is if their attitude is poor. They like how straightforward I am.
“Yesterday it showed, when the soldier in me came out,” says Ott of Wednesday’s win over Tonga. “I grew up with toughness, and all the experience I have gained over the years came out. I can’t be soft, and I can’t see the boys seeing me being soft. I told them yesterday when we went behind, ‘It’s not done yet, just keep playing.’ And we came back after conceding that goal.”
Keeping it in the family
For decades to come, the history of football in American Samoa will be synonymous with the name Ott. He scored in the team’s first World Cup win in 2011, and even netted when the nation claimed their first point at youth level a decade ago. Now he has bagged the winner in American Samoa’s second World Cup win.
Ramin’s older brother Diamond was also set to have been in Tonga, participating in the first stage of qualifying, had he not received a fifth overseas deployment with the US Army. Four years ago, Diamond was the width of the post away from securing progress to the second round, only for his potential match-winner to hit the woodwork in the dying moments against Samoa. The Ott family are also known in the American Samoa football fraternity for running the well-recognised Black Roses club.
Now, following his winner against Tonga on Wednesday, Ott has join an elite group of players globally who can lay claim to scoring in three successive World Cup campaigns. The goal also saw him become American Samoa’s leading goalscorer with three. A modest tally undoubtedly, but this, after all, is a nation which had only scored four World Cup goals until this week.
American Samoa opened the week with a tense 3-2 defeat against rivals Samoa, but Wednesday’s result means they could progress to the next stage with victory over Cook Islands on Friday. And Ott says the current crop, which includes a chunk of US-based players, boast a skill-set never seen before in the national team.
“From the 2011 team I would bring their physicality to this team, we were very physical then,” says Ott with emphasis. “Now we know how to play the ball, and create.”
When Ott started his World Cup journey, he saw his American Samoa side concede a whopping 38 goals in four matches. The development in just two World Cup cycles has been astounding. “No, not at all,” said Ott when asked if he ever imagined American Samoa reaching the level it has.
And Ott says the 2011 impact of former USA youth coach Thomas Rongen - whose highly disciplined approach featured prominently in the American Samoa focussed documentary Next Goal Wins - was instrumental in changing the team’s mindset.
“Thomas Rongen’s main thing was mentally preparing us so that every game we are thinking we are going to win. Normally we would think, ‘Oh, we are going into this tournament to play, lose and come back.' But he changed that. That was a very positive thing for us.
“We are starting to be threats in these qualifiers, so we are slowly coming up. For the future, we are heading upwards now. I hope we now play more games, and stay together.”