For four Polynesian nations, the four-year wait to attempt to turn FIFA World Cup™ dreams into reality played out over just five days at the J.S. Blatter Stadium in Apia, Samoa last week. Ultimately it was Samoa, arguably the pre-tournament favourites, who claimed the only ticket on offer to Round Two of Oceania qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, although the tournament will also long be remembered for the achievements of American Samoa.
Appropriately enough, the competition was fierce and tightly contested, with a single-goal the biggest margin across any of the six matches, and the other two participants, Cook Islands and Tonga, also highly competitive.
Awaiting Samoa in Round Two next June, which doubles as the OFC Nations Cup, will be Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Tahiti. The other group comprises Fiji, Solomon Islands, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, with the top four advancing to the third and final stage of Oceania qualifying.
None of the quartet had enjoyed significant preparation with each playing only a handful of internationals since South Africa 2010 qualifiers concluded in September 2007. Opening-day results proved crucial in the final wash-up. The tournament opened with American Samoa defeating Tonga 2-1, while the hosts edged out Cook Islands 3-2 with a stoppage time winner. Many observers felt Albert Bell’s late goal on the opening day would go a long way towards deciding the group winner, but American Samoa and Tonga were not about to let their hard work evaporate easily.
Under international coaching debutant Chris Williams, Tonga had prepared almost daily for the last eight months and their famous warrior spirit was on display in the second outing as they held rivals Samoa to a 1-1 draw. However, American Samoa drew with the Cook Islands by the same scoreline earlier in the day, which, combined with the fact that the two Samoan nations were drawn against each other in the final round, meant the end of the road for Tonga.
Samoa went into the final match needing just a draw to qualify by virtue of goals scored. As it turned out, the Samoans dominated goalscoring opportunities, although the best chance of the match fell the way of the underdogs only for Diamond Ott’s late close-range effort to strike the upright and bounce away, taking with it American Samoa’s hopes of a stunning upset. With the visiting side pushing forward for a winner, Silao Malo finished off a counter-attack to confirm Samoa’s passage to Fiji alongside Oceania’s seven highest-ranked nations. The final match of the tournament went the way of Tonga, with their 2-1 victory enough to tip American Samoa out of second on goals scored.
New ground ploughed
A decade is a long time in football, but in the Pacific Islands, where the opportunity for exposure to international football is limited, ground-breaking improvement as achieved by American Samoa last week is noteworthy, if not extraordinary. The fact that American Samoa were in the hunt until virtually the last kick of the final match is testament to not only their coach Thomas Rongen, but also the will to improve no matter how intimidating the odds.
While Samoa came up trumps, it was neighbours American Samoa who will surely look back on these five days in Apia as a turning point in their game. Just over a decade ago, the tiny South Pacific nation of less than 60,000 inhabitants commenced their FIFA World Cup journey in the most ignominious fashion imaginable.
In the unlikely setting of the Australian tourist destination Coffs Harbour, American Samoa kicked off with a 13-0 opening loss against Fiji. Their tournament concluded a week later with four defeats, 57 goals conceded and an unimaginable 31-0 defeat against Australia; a record international scoreline unlikely to be surpassed.
A week ago, American Samoa’s FIFA World Cup history detailed 12 defeats, two goals scored and 129 goals conceded. They had also never won an international match, but that unwanted record was to be turned around in spectacular fashion.
An opening encounter against Tonga saw Ramin Ott, scorer of one of the nation’s two previous FIFA World Cup goals, put his side ahead before the interval. The name, however, that will go down in the history books will be 17-year-old Shalom Luani, whose second-half strike proved to be the winner as Unaloto Feao pulled a goal back. Luani was at it again two days later against Cook Islands, scoring in a 1-1 draw.
After little more than a month in the role, highly experienced former MLS and USA U-20 coach Thomas Rongen has proved himself capable of unlocking American Samoa’s natural potential. "It's actually been very refreshing because it's such a pure form of football," said the Dutch-born Florida resident. "It's amateur football at its best. The game at the highest level can be very cynical but this is just about 23 guys making sacrifices. They’re not getting anything to be here and some are spending time away from their jobs and are losing money because of that.”
American Samoa’s agile goalkeeper Salapu was at the wrong end of that infamous world record scoreline a decade ago and he, more than anyone had demons to exorcise in Apia. “This man changed in 90 minutes from a guy with some serious problems, mental problems, because he is carrying this 31 to nothing with him,” said Rongen of Salapu following the win over Tonga. “The first thing after the game, he looked to me. He was crying, and said ‘I can now tell my children that I'm a winner’ and that is bigger than the game itself, quite frankly.”