If at first you don’t succeed then try, try, try again. Or so they say. Perhaps there are more and less appropriate times to follow such advice.
It’s surprising that the American Samoa players even returned to the pitch from their half-time team-talk 20 years ago today, knowing they were 16–0 down.
Australia beat American Samoa by 31 goals two decades ago this very day — still the biggest margin of victory in international football history. The tiny pacific island nation owned by the United States had entered World Cup qualifying for the first time ever. Passport complications meant just one of the original squad could enter Australia for their toughest fixture of the campaign. Twenty-year-old goalkeeper Nicky Salapu was that man. If only he knew what was in store, he might have been inclined to stay put.
The coming few days would bring a life-changing, sobering experience that would stay with him forever, and not in a good way.
In the absence of all but one of their ‘best’ players, American Samoa fielded a makeshift team that gave a whole new meaning to makeshift. Three 15-year-olds started the game, the team’s average age was just 18, and some had never played a full 90 minutes of football in their lives. While American Samoa’s best crop were unable to play, Australia’s best simply didn’t need to. Their hard work had been done two days prior as they’d waltzed past Tonga 22–0. With it, they’d broken Kuwait’s record for the largest international win ever. Suddenly, their very next fixture had all the ingredients for an even larger drubbing.
With Salapu in goal and a handful of teenagers in front of him, American Samoa took on the greatest team on the continent — Australia’s population dwarfing the archipelago’s by over 330 times. It would be men against boys, in more ways than one.
The amateur goalkeeper kept Australia’s second-string XI at bay with a couple of tidy early stops. In the 10th minute though, midfielder Con Boutsianis nodded the Aussies’ first into the net from a corner. Seconds later and it was 2-0. As the minutes ticked on by, the manually operated scoreboard crept up and up. Within the first half-hour, it was already 12-0.
The island minnows returned from the dressing room already losing by 16. While they couldn’t quite repeat the unapologetic rampancy of their first-half showing, the Socceroos came mightily close. They knocked in another 15 unanswered goals in a frankly heartbreaking second 45. The man responsible for the scoreboard couldn’t keep up. American Samoa hadn’t been as bad as his 32-0 suggested, but then 31 was hardly better.
It was hard to see what the American Samoans could have done better. New Zealand-born striker Archie Thompson had helped himself to 13 goals; David Zdrilic hit eight of his own. The two centre-backs had struck two each. And while all of this made for an amusing and popular news story around the world, international fame and sympathy was the antithesis of what Nicky Salapu wanted. Those close to him will tell you that conceding 31 goals on a single outing bruised him for years.
When the 2010 World Cup version of the video game Fifa came out nearly a decade on, Salapu used to spend his evenings setting up fixtures between Australia and Samoa — American Samoa didn’t feature on the game. Unplugging the Aussie controller and racking up an even larger scoreline in favour of Samoa worked as his therapy, his coping mechanism. If conceding a goal is a personal thing for a goalkeeper, conceding 31 must be debilitating. It’s one thing to laugh it off if it happens at grassroots level; it’s quite another if it happens in a World Cup qualifier.
There was immediate criticism from Australia’s then-manager Frank Farina about the Oceanian qualifying process. In the two decades that have passed, a lot has changed. Australia wanted more competitive fixtures than simply facing New Zealand and a cluster of obscure pacific islands. In 2006, the Socceroos were transferred to the Asian football confederation, where they have been ever since. Japan, South Korea and others now offer much more even-handed tests. In that time, Australia have qualified for every World Cup.
American Samoa, like the team who thrashed them 31-0, have also made big strides forward. In both 2014 and 2018 World Cup qualifying, they won matches against Tonga and the Cook Islands as they came close to progressing to the second round, where they would have faced New Zealand. While they haven’t played since the summer of 2019, there is a feeling that their 37-game losing streak that ran from 1983 to 2011 is unlikely to ever be repeated. Since then, they’ve won three and drawn two of 12 games. World-beating? Certainly not. Progress? Most definitely.
Salapu was 38 and still the team’s captain when American Samoa last took to the pitch. They still fielded players 16 and younger, and still lost the game (8-1 to Tahiti). But as American Samoa have become more competitive, so has international football. A stick used to beat the international game with for so long, the hard work of the world’s worst national teams is finally paying off.
There’s plenty of evidence that international football’s whipping boys are closing the gap on the sport’s global elite. They had to climb out of an almighty hole, but if Nicky Salapu and American Samoa could turn it around, there’s genuine hope for every national team on the planet.