Patience rewarded for American Samoa

Good things, they say, come to those who wait. For the tiny Pacific nation of American Samoa, one of FIFA’s smallest Member Associations, the wait was seemingly eternal. Nearly two decades after first taking the field in an international match, American Samoa were finally able to savour their maiden win.

Not that the journey was an easy one. Indeed, American Samoa’s path to international growth was a tortuous one and included the ignominy of suffering a world record defeat. Nevertheless, the pain of failure was all but forgotten on 22 November at the Toleafoa J.S. Blatter Complex in neighbouring Samoa. Nearly 17 years to the day since their international debut, also in the Samoan capital of Apia, American Samoa finally tasted victory over favoured Tonga.

Their reward on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking was a move of 18 places to an all-time high of 186, and, in the process, leapfrogging fellow Oceania nations Papua New Guinea and Cook Islands. Modest progress for some, but in relative terms a significant achievement for a nation of less than 60,000 inhabitants.

Struggle against adversity
American Samoa’s quest for international achievement commenced with the Oceania Nations Cup qualifiers in 1994. There followed two more unsuccessful attempts to qualify for the continental competition, before competing in their maiden FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers in 2001.

Appearing on such a stage was itself a breakthrough achievement in the nation’s ongoing development, but results on the field were disastrous on an unimaginable scale. Shorn of numerous players prior to the tournament because of eligibility requirements, the team, made up in part by teenagers, conceded 57 unanswered goals in their four defeats. The nadir, however, was a 31-0 defeat by host nation Australia and a world record scoreline that is unlikely to ever be surpassed.

The only way, of course, was up, however the scorelines remained one-sided during qualifiers for Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, albeit by relatively closer margins. But without even a single draw in their history, American Samoa remained permanently marooned in the lower reaches of the global pecking order.

New narrative written 
In truth, little was expected of American Samoa as they approached Oceania’s opening four-nation stage of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil qualifiers last November. Only one team would progress to the second stage and that seemed little more than a pipe dream for American Samoa.

Yet with the tactical acumen provided by new coach Thomas Rongen, a veteran of many years coaching in Major League Soccer and at the helm of USA’s Under-20 team, American Samoa were in the hunt for progression until the very last minute of the final match. Only then were Samoa able to find a winner against their plucky neighbours, for whom only a victory would have kept alive their campaign. Incredible as it may seem, American Samoa could easily have achieved the unthinkable only for Diamond Ott to strike the post with ten minutes remaining.

Despite that disappointment, breakthrough success had already been claimed four days prior with the memorable and long-awaited win over Tonga. A deserved victory against the Tongans achieved with 17-year-old Shalom Luani scoring the winner in the 2-1 victory. The landmarks didn’t end there, though, as the Islanders claimed their first international draw with Luani again on target in a 1-1 scoreline against Cook Islands.

The opening day victory was a major achievement and for goalkeeper Nicky Salapu, a veteran of that record-breaking loss against Australia, it was also redemption. “The first thing after the game, he looked to me,” said Rongen of his goalkeeper. “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.” Good things indeed come to those who wait.