Sometimes it feels like the raw joy of football is occasionally lost amid the pressure and demands of the game at the top end. And if there is one international player who perhaps should feel wounded by the game more than anyone it is Nicky Salapu. Yet the American Samoa No1 – who initially gained worldwide recognition as the goalkeeper who conceded a world record 31 goals in a single FIFA World Cup™ qualifier – now has an almost unimaginably high level of respect for the game.
Salapu’s story is ultimately one of redemption, but it takes a special character to bounce back and take joy in a game that inflicted such deep wounds. That record 31-0 defeat against Australia in 2001 initially proved a massive burden for Salapu to shoulder.
American Samoa could usually be found at the very bottom of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking until 2011. It was then that American Samoa won their first match almost exactly 17 years to the day from their international bow, having conceded an incredible 129 goals in their first 12 World Cup qualifiers.
Finally Salapu was able to cast aside some demons. As the only survivor from the 90-minute carnage ten years earlier, the 2011 result meant more to Salapu than anyone. Amid the post-match emotion, and as documented in the feature film Next Goal Wins, coach Thomas Rongen said 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.”
But Nicky Salapu is clearly the kind of guy who when knocked down gets right back up again. “It was really hard for me to deal with,” Salapu told FIFA.com recently in reference to the infamous defeat. “But I thought if I don’t get back on the field I would never get a win for American Samoa.
“It was a challenge for me to move forward and to take that worst team (tag) away and do something for American Samoa. It was a massive challenge for me mentally.”
For the love of the game
Fast forward to 2015 and Salapu, now aged 35, is more engrossed in the game than ever before. In fact, by his own admission, he is borderline obsessed. He was in American Samoa’s squad for 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying in September, but it is at amateur level where his devotion most obviously plays out. Salapu spends almost every moment of available time playing football, turning out in the colours of no less than seven teams in Seattle, where he now lives. And when he is not playing, he is refereeing.
Like any good passion, the pain it brings can often serve to accentuate the bond. “I love this sport, and I love to respect this sport,” Salapu says with a wistful smile that reflects his raw joy for football.
Sometimes my body runs out of energy, but my heart still loves the sport.
“I have tried to meet every challenge and the game has allowed me to have that opportunity. Sometimes my body runs out of energy, but my heart still loves the sport.
“I just love the sport, and I love to respect the game in every single moment. This sport has taken me around the world, and I want to respect it in return.”
His No1 fan is surely son Dylan but, as Salapu tells it, the eight-year-old might also be his harshest critic. “Every time I do practice with him I let him (Dylan) have shots at me,” says Salapu. “But he is a little brat. Every time he scores past me he will say something like: ‘Dude, you know what, you are a good goalkeeper but you have to do better than that.’”
American Samoa’s Russia 2018 charge ended almost before it started back in September. Yet they came within a single goal of qualifying for next year’s Stage 2 and a spot at the table among the continent’s traditional powers. It would have been a remarkable achievement given the team’s history.
In their three World Cup qualifiers this year, American Samoa more than doubled their all-time tally. Supplemented by several USA-based players with American Samoa background, the team is on a clear upward trajectory. And Salapu believes the future is bright for one of FIFA’s smallest Member Associations.
“I always thought there would be very good outcomes for the team someday,” he said. “I know there is a bunch of Samoan kids in the States, and we have done our research and brought them in thanks to the Federation.
“Also we have to thank the guys that did the movie (Next Goal Wins), because without them we wouldn’t have been known around the world, and that is why many kids came over and tried out for us. They realised ‘oh my god, this is my country.’”
Despite the advancing years, Salapu is keen to return to World Cup qualifying in four years. Fitness clearly won’t be a hindrance. And passion most definitely won’t be a problem.
“I’m enjoying single moment of it (the international matches). I had been suffering for a long time to get that win. To be part of this has been a big deal for me.”